Myanmar Refugees in Bangladesh: Nowhere to Go

© Valérie Batselaere/MSF
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New York, March 12, 2007 – After fleeing persecution in Myanmar and living in appalling conditions for many years in Bangladesh, hundreds of refugee families are now requested by the Bangladeshi authorities to evacuate and leave without being provided with an alternative place to go, the medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said today.

This is the situation facing hundreds of families based in a makeshift camp near Teknaf, commonly referred to as "Tal" camp. The camp consists of small, ramshackle shelters situated in an area between the river Naf and the highway leading to the city of Cox's Bazaar. More than 6,000 men, women, and children have sought refuge on a stretch of land 800 meters long and 30 meters wide, where food and potable water is scarce and access to health care is limited.

The Muslim refugees, who are ethnically referred to as "Rohingya", have for many years been fleeing Myanmar's Northern Rakhine State, where, they say, they were subject to severe abuses, including forced labor, restrictions on movement, and land confiscations. For many years they have lived in extremely vulnerable conditions, stateless within their own country and denied refugee status in Bangladesh. "Going back is like drowning in the sea," says a woman from Tal camp. "We had lots of sufferings there (Myanmar)."

In April 2006, MSF carried out an assessment and found worrying health indicators among the makeshift camp population as a result of the squalid living conditions: shelters are built extremely close together, leaving no room for gardens to grow crops; during the rainy season 79 percent of the shelters are flooded and during the rest of the year 10 percent of the shelters are affected by water that comes in at high tide. These conditions cause diarrhoea, respiratory infections, and malnutrition, among other health consequences. Soon after, MSF opened a clinic and a therapeutic feeding center (TFC) near the makeshift camp. Both facilities are open to everyone in the camp as well as those living in the surrounding area. However, malnutrition and disease disproportionately affect the people living in the camp. Over 100 consultations are done on a daily basis, while the TFC feeds an average of more than 40 children per day.

In an effort to clear roadsides nationwide, the government of Bangladesh is demanding that part of the makeshift camp, located next to the main road, be cleared as well. Moreover, authorities are making certain that families that do not appear on their residents' list leave as well. After being displaced, forcefully re-located, or having sought refuge for the better part of the last 15 years, a significant number of the camp's occupants will have to move again.

"While it is still unclear what is going to happen to the people that are being driven out of Tal camp," said MSF Head of Mission Frido Herinckx, "it is time for the Bangladeshi authorities to work together with members of the international community to deal with a problem that has already been there for 15 years and is not going to disappear just by sending people away. Alternatives have to be offered or negotiated; they have to go somewhere. Nobody should be allowed to live like this."

If no durable solutions are found to improve their living conditions and access to services, thousands of Rohingya people are likely to continue to be exposed to disease and malnutrition, after having suffered displacement, exploitation, and abuse throughout their lives, both in Bangladesh and in Myanmar.