“When I first met Saliman Khatun she was desperately worried about her baby. A small bundle of blankets and clothes, her daughter was letting out a piercing cry. Saliman didn’t know what was wrong with two-year-old Jeshminara but knew that she must see a doctor.
Saliman and Jeshminara were waiting in the courtyard of the health centre at Leda site in Teknaf, south-east Bangladesh. The site is home to 13,000 Rohingya refugees who have fled persecution and oppression in their native Myanmar.
Around 200,000 Rohingya are living in Bangladesh, but only 23,000 of them are registered and living in camps run by the UNHCR. The rest are living in slums or informal settlements throughout Cox’s Bazaar, in the south of the country.
Before they moved to this purpose built site constructed by Islamic Relief in July 2008, these refugees had been living in an informal settlement on the banks of the River Naf. This river is all that separates Bangladesh and Myanmar and many Rohingya make the perilous journey from their home villages by paying people to take them across this river in small fishing boats.
Once settled in Teknaf however, this river proved to be a destructive force for many of the Rohingya. Every day during high tide their small shelters, made from bamboo and bits of plastic sheeting, would be flooded. Waterborne disease were rife and many people lost their lives.
The new site is further inland and not only offers protection from the river, but Islamic Relief also provides basic services such as clean water, sanitation facilities, shelter and healthcare.
There are rows of long, low buildings made from bamboo and cement that are divided into separate shelters for individual families. People have set up small shops selling sweets, fruit and vegetables, there are also barber’s shops and chemists. The site is dusty but clean and the beige of the bamboo buildings and the dust is broken up with splashes of bright pinks, oranges and yellows as people dry their clothes on their roofs.
But huge problems remain. Food is in short supply, water is scarce, diseases rife and malnutrition rampant. The waiting room of the health centre is packed with frantic women like Saliman clutching small babies, many of whom are desperately ill. Yet people are so desperate to get the services on offer that people have begun to divide up their small shelters to allow other unregistered Rohingya families to stay with them. This is putting extra strain on the already scarce resources.
A few hours later I met Saliman again and she explained that Jeshminara had been diagnosed with pneumonia. She was now more passive as she lay in her mother’s arms and had been prescribed with medication to bring down her fever and cure the infection. This was the second time she had caught this disease.
Jeshminara’s health was not the only thing concerning Saliman. She explained that she did not have enough food and that her husband had no job and no way to make a living. She was worried that her dream to see her daughter educated would not come true.
Yet despite these problems she said that she knew she could never return to Myanmar.
Saliman’s family has lived in Myanmar for generations and her parents still live in the same village where she grew up. But she fled three years ago with her husband, leaving her village in the dead of night to travel to the river where they paid someone to take them to Bangladesh by boat.
Like other refugees I spoke to, she said that the Rohingya in Myanmar had been subjected to various forms of abuse including forced labour, beatings and restrictions on their right to marry.
Unfortunately for Saliman, once in Bangladesh her problems were far from over. Not long after she had made the crossing her husband was arrested while fishing. She was told that he was dead but later found out that he was being held in a Bangladeshi prison. On her own and with a young child to support Saliman’s husband was worried about her safety. With no other options he divorced her from prison enabling her to marry his younger brother and therefore giving her someone to protect her.
No way out
Unable to return to Myanmar and without being registered as an official refugee, there are few options open to Rohingya families like Saliman’s. With no education and facing hostility from the host community, few Rohingya from the Leda site are able to work. Consequently they have no way of leaving the conditions of poverty they are currently living in.
Although Islamic Relief is able to keep them alive by providing basic services, the future seems bleak for Rohingya children such as Jeshminara for whom home has only ever been a refugee camp.”