Bangladesh + 1 more

Bangladesh: Rohingya refugee camps improved

News and Press Release
Originally published
KUTUPALONG, 7 November 2008 (IRIN) - Conditions for thousands of Rohingya refugees at two government-run camps have improved, thanks largely to policy changes from the authorities in the past two years, aid workers say.

There are 28,000 documented Rohingya living in the camps in the southeast district of Cox's Bazar - remnants of a mass influx of this ethnic, linguistic and religious minority when 250,000 fled Myanmar's western Rakhine state in 1991.

"Things have progressed over the past two years, but we have a long way to go," Pia Prytz Phiri, country representative for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), told IRIN in Dhaka.

Almost half the camp residents were born in Bangladesh. Close to 11,000 live at the Kutupalong camp, with another 17,000 farther south at Nayapara. Both camps are within 2km of Myanmar.

However, the camp populations comprise fewer than a fifth of the overall estimated 200,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh, many of whom may be stateless.

Poor conditions

Although residents receive regular UN-supplied food rations, as well as access to rudimentary healthcare, conditions are poor.

Tension between local communities and camp residents is not uncommon, given the camps' close proximity to the host communities.

Officially, refugees are not allowed to travel or work outside the camp without permission, but many do so unofficially.

Children have access to only informal primary school education until grade five, after which there are no opportunities for further education - and youth make up half the camps' population.

Yet over the past two years, significant steps, spearheaded by UNHCR, and helped by a more flexible approach by the authorities, have been made to improve the lives of camp residents while a durable solution to their plight is found.

"Conditions before were really bad. We've made significant progress and it's visible," said Nobenour Rahman Khan, a field assistant for UNHCR.

Since the beginning of this year, more than 50 percent of all camp shelters have been replaced with semi-permanent structures, in line with recommendations made by the refugees themselves, providing them with greater space and ventilation, while small shops have also been allowed inside the camps.

More than 50 solar street lights have been installed in an effort to improve security, and latrines, bathing cubicles and tube wells have been replaced to UNHCR standards.

And with NGOs now allowed to work in the camps, hundreds of refugee women have been able to access a variety of vocational training projects, including tailoring, laundry soap production, and clothes dyeing, while for the first time this year, more than 100 men received tailoring and carpentry skills training as well.

In addition, more than 1,000 adults and adolescents have attended adult literacy classes.

Following the approval of the government, UNHCR successfully distributed identification cards to all documented refugees inside the camp over the age of five in July, providing them with a form of identification for the first time - an important step given they are not considered nationals of Myanmar.

Moreover, a national birth registration campaign supported by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) is also being extended to refugee children in the camps.

Refugee camp committees help manage the camps - a system put in place after the government agreed to disband the "Maji" system, in which a few local officials and select residents allegedly exploited camp residents. As a result, instances of arbitrary arrests, bribery and extortion have dropped, and refugees are able to access humanitarian personnel and services more easily.

And while education opportunities remain limited, UNICEF has plans to formalise the camps' informal primary school education programme in line with the Bangladesh national curriculum.