COX'S BAZAR, 13 January 2012 (IRIN) - While the Myanmar government takes significant strides in political reform, Rohingya refugees in southern Bangladesh fear their condition may not change any time soon.
They are skeptical about a string of reform moves by the Burmese government, saying they are not aware of any real improvement in the conditions which forced them to flee their country.
"The situation has not improved," Mostak Ahmad, 35, an undocumented Rohingya refugee who fled 10 years ago, told IRIN. "We were hopeful during the 2010 election as we were given voting powers but now we are frustrated."
Since taking office in March 2011, President U Thein Sein, a former general, has released hundreds of political prisoners, legalized labour unions, eased censorship, held talks with Washington and London, and signed a ceasefire with ethnic Karen rebels - a major step towards ending one of the world's longest-running ethnic insurgencies.
But for Rohingya, an ethnic group who fled to Bangladesh en masse from neighbouring Myanmar years earlier, there is little optimism.
Fazal Karim, 40, who fled to avoid forced labour, [ http://www.irinnews.org/report.aspx?reportid=88240 ] had recently spoken with his relatives in Myanmar." They said that in some cases the situation had worsened," he said.
Rohingyas [ http://www.irinnews.org/IndepthMain.aspx?indepthid=82&reportid=86669 ] - an ethnic, linguistic and religious (Muslim) minority who fled persecution decades ago - are caught between a rock and a hard place, activists say.
Under Burmese law, the Rohingyas are de jure stateless, but they fare little better in Bangladesh.
Most Rohingyas in Bangladesh have no legal rights and few employment opportunities.
According to Refugees International, they live in squalor, receive limited aid and are vulnerable to arrest, extortion and even physical attack.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are some 200,000 Rohingyas in Bangladesh, of whom only 28,000 are documented and living in two government camps assisted by the agency. Close to 11,000 live at the Kutupalong camp, with another 17,000 farther south at Nayapara - both within 2km of Myanmar.
Activists say Rohingyas in Myanmar's northern Rakhine State still have no freedom to travel or marry and remain subject to extortion, intimidation and abuse.
"While there are some improvements in the Burmese government's rhetoric, there is no change on the ground," said Lynn Yoshikawa, a campaigner with Washington-based Refugees International.
Following the 2010 elections, forced labour was as pervasive as ever and may have increased, with some labourers as young as 10, a 2011 report [ http://www.burmalibrary.org/docs12/AP-Forced_labour_after_the_elections-2011-08-22.pdf ] by the Arakan Project, a group campaigning for Rohingya rights, revealed.
Chris Lewa, the group's coordinator, said there had been no sign of improvement for Rohingyas in Myanmar, either in terms of policy towards them, or on the ground, "and little hope" that things could change in the near future.
The new Burmese government still considered Rohingyas "illegal immigrants from a neighbouring country" and has no intention of granting them citizenship or relaxing restrictions on them, she added.
Straws in the wind
However, during a December visit to Myanmar by Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Burmese President U Thein Sein expressed his desire to cooperate with Bangladesh in resolving the Rohingya issue, and two days after the visit Bangladesh officials said Myanmar had agreed to take back documented Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh after verification by its authorities.
But the agreement will have no impact on the vast majority of Rohingyas who are unregistered, Yoshikawa said.
There is little chance that many registered refugees would agree to return under the present conditions in Myanmar, though if conditions were to improve significantly many would not hesitate, said Lewa.
"Who wants a refugee's life?" asked Faruque Ahmed, a documented Rohingya refugee at the Kutupalong refugee camp. "We are always prepared to go back to Myanmar but we demand the same rights as other citizens," he said.
Each year scores of Rohingyas - from Myanmar and Bangladesh - attempt to escape by boat, often turning up in Thailand, Malaysia or as far away as Indonesia.
In December, at least 23 Rohingyas are known to have died when the two boats carrying them and 200 others capsized in the Bay of Bengal, while on 2 January a number of Rohingyas reached the Australian coast after an arduous voyage from Malaysia, the Arakan Project reported.
"We know it is a risky journey, but we have no other option," said Hasan Ali, a documented Rohingya at Kutupalong camp.