This is a community threatened with extinction for the past seven decades.
Relief workers for International agencies sit with me in Dhaka (Bangladesh). They are talking about the difficulties faced by the Rohingya people who have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh over the past several months. Over 650,000 people from the Rohingya community came into Bangladesh since August 25 of last year. This is a torrent of desperate people, a community threatened with extinction for the past seven decades. The refugee camps near Cox’s Bazaar are overcrowded and dangerously unhygienic. Already there is an outbreak of diphtheria, with indications of severe health challenges to come. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), half of the refugees are malnourished and anaemic, while a quarter of the children suffer from acute malnutrition. A logistical worker for a relief agency tells me that in his three decades in this work he has never seen anything like this.
Matters are worse in Thailand, where an unknown number of Rohingya refugees have been sold into slavery (estimates suggest that 500,000 slaves work in various industries in Thailand). Many of those sold into slavery work on fishing boats, particularly in the prawn fishing industry. It is said that the price of the enslaved person now is a mere 5% of what it was in the 19th century. Indeed, the slavery does not begin when the refugees leave Myanmar. UN officials report that in the encampments where the Rohingya have gathered in Sittwe, the port city capital of Rakhine state inside Myanmar, ‘people smugglers are very active in the camps.’
Stunningly, it is now said that a quarter of the Rohingya people have been ejected from Myanmar, with large numbers internally displaced in what amount to concentration camps. Marixie Mercado of UNICEF visited some of these camps – even the ones that are hard to reach such as Pautaw township. ‘The first thing you notice when you reach the camps is the stomach-churning stench,’ Mercado recalls. ‘Parts of the camps are literally cesspools. Shelters teeter on stilts above garbage and excrement. Children walk barefoot through the muck. One camp manager reported four deaths among children ages 3 to 10 within the first 18 days of December.’ There are about 60,000 children in these camps – totally isolated and with ‘high levels of toxic fear,’ said Mercado.