Nearly four months after violent incidents drove them from Myanmar to Bangladesh, Rohingya women and children are living precariously with limited assistance and fears of deportation.
COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh – In a quiet village in south-eastern Bangladesh, Baby Mukoroma sleeps soundly. She’s blissfully unaware of the worry on her mother Rojia’s face, or what she had to suffer so that her children can sleep in peace today.
In a neighbouring district, 16-year-old Iliyas winces as he hobbles on his good leg. The long scar on his left leg is healing well, but he still needs crutches to get around.
Iliyas and Rojia are among more than 60,000 Rohingya who are believed to have sought safety in Bangladesh since October 2016. They fled their homes in northern Rakhine state, Myanmar after militant attacks on several police posts triggered a security operation that resulted in the burning of houses, displacement of civilians and reports of rights violations.
“I heard gunshots and everyone was running.”
“It was a Sunday and I went to the market to help my father sell vegetables,” says Iliyas, recalling the day his life changed last October. “I heard gunshots and everyone was running. I was shot in the leg and fell into a rice field.”
In Rojia’s village, most of the men had left pre-emptively, leaving the women at home. After armed men looted her house at gunpoint, the 29-year-old decided it was too dangerous to stay. Despite being nine months pregnant, she took her four children and joined a group headed for the Bangladesh border. They walked for more than 10 km, taking the back roads to avoid attention.
“I was exhausted and couldn’t move anymore. My legs were swollen and my blood pressure was high,” she says.
With great difficulty, both Iliyas and Rojia’s family eventually crossed the Naf river into Bangladesh, where they found their relatives who had arrived earlier.
“My husband was already in Cox’s Bazar and in touch with UNHCR,” said Rojia. “They sent an ambulance to take me to the hospital. Nine days later, my baby was born.”
Iliyas was in equally bad shape. Unable to get proper treatment back home, his wound had been dressed with some local leaves and tied with strips of cloth. His leg and hands became swollen from infection. In Bangladesh, UNHCR and its partners took him to a local hospital, where they found that the bullet had broken his femur. They gave him life-saving surgery and inserted a metal rod to stabilize his leg.
Today, Iliyas is recovering under the care of his relatives. UNHCR provided some clothing and a chair with a toilet seat and pan so that he does not have to be carried to the toilet repeatedly. He has asked for crutches so that he can get back on his feet again.
“I’m happy to be alive,” he says, adding that he would like to resume his Grade 9 education in Bangladesh.
While the teenager tries to stay positive and forward-looking, he worries about those he left behind in Myanmar. “My mother and siblings are running out of food and begging from house to house,” he said.
In Myanmar, UNHCR has been advocating for unfettered access to the affected areas in northern Rakhine state in order to determine and meet urgent humanitarian needs. The agency has also been appealing for full access to the new Rohingya arrivals in Bangladesh, where it is working with partners to provide protection and assistance to this highly-vulnerable group.
“If there is peace, I will go back immediately.”
Rojia’s family is currently sheltering in a local village in Bangladesh. They pay 2,000 taka (around $25) to share a house with three other families, and live in fear of being arrested and deported.
“We don’t like staying in someone’s house with other families. We don’t like being a burden on them,” she says. “If there is peace, I will go back immediately to Myanmar.”
Prior to the recent influx, UNHCR was assisting 33,000 Rohingya refugees in two official camps in Bangladesh. In addition, there were estimated to be several hundred thousand undocumented Rohingya living in makeshift sites and host villages.
“With these new arrivals, there is an urgent need to register and document all Rohingya in Bangladesh regardless of where they are,” said UNHCR’s Representative in Bangladesh, Shinji Kubo. “This will help the government know who is on its soil. It will also help humanitarian agencies to target assistance to those who need it most, including host communities.”