In 1992, more than a quarter of a million Rohingya fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh, where they were considered unwelcome economic migrants. Two years later, without any clear change in the situation in Myanmar, the Bangladeshi authorities in cooperation with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) started mass repatriations of the refugees.
Today, and estimated 200,000 to 400,000 Rohingya refugees are still seeking refuge in Bangladesh, but few are given legal refugee status. Instead, they live perilous lives in overcrowded and unsanitary makeshift camps, and often face detention or deportation.
The Kutupalong makeshift camp is situation south of Cox’s Bazaar, on the southeastern shore of Bangladesh, next to the official Kutupalong camp, which is operated by the UNHCR. To date, an estimated 22,000 people have flocked to the makeshift camp hoping for recognition and medical assistance. Instead of finding help, they have been told that they cannot stay there.
The unregistered refugees are not provided with the same legal rights as the refugees living in the UNHCR camp next door and instead face harassment and intimidation from Bangladeshi authorities. In June 2009, approximately 30 local officials entered the Kutupalong makeshift camp and destroyed 259 homes, looting people’s possessions in the process.
Some of the Rohingya live along the beach on the road between Cox’s Bazar and the Kutapalong makeshift refugee camp. They try to earn a little money by fishing. Most of the time they earn less than one dollar a day.
In March 2009, an assessment by Doctors Without Borders/MSF concluded that the Kutapalong makeshift camp contained 20,000 people living in dire humanitarian conditions with global acute malnutrition rates above the emergency threshold, food insecurity, poor water and sanitation, and no assistance.
Alarmed by the fast-rising numbers of refugees and the grim health situation, MSF immediately launched an emergency program providing basic health care to children less than 5 years of age. Teams run a feeding program for malnourished children and make improvements to water and sanitation in the camp.
MSF began providing health services to Bangladesh for Rohingya refugees in 1998. MSF teams are also present in Thailand, the destination of a great number of Rohingya “boat refugees” who flee Myanmar by water on dangerous vessels.
Each of Myanmar’s five border countries – Bangladesh, China, India, Laos, and Thailand have Burmese refugees. Only China is a signatory to the international refugee convention. In Bangladesh, where hundreds of thousands of unregistered refugees are struggling to survive, only around 25,000 people have official refugee status.