Children with henna-painted hands play outside mud-walled hovels with damaged roofs in one of Bangladesh’s biggest refugee camps.
They’re among 276,000 Rohingya people living in camps and informal settlements in and around Cox’s Bazar, according to estimates by the United Nation Human Rights Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
The government says around 100 people were killed in the four-month operation, human rights groups say the total is far higher and could amount to genocide.
Of the thousands of people now crammed in camps in Bangladesh, only 12% are registered refugees with access to education, which means most of these children will only play until they are strong enough to be put to work, perhaps breaking bricks or planting rice.
And that’s if they are lucky enough to stay in the country.
“We are a small country with a huge population,” said Najnin Sarwar Kaberi, organizing secretary for the ruling Awami League party in Cox’s Bazar. If the refugees “settle here permanently, it will increase unemployment so we can’t give them the same opportunities as our citizens.”
Rohingya Muslims are regularly referred to as among the world’s most persecuted people.
They’re not included on the list of 135 recognized national ethnic groups under Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law.
The ruling Myanmar government considers them Bengali, but the Bangladesh government doesn’t recognize them as such.
With no country to call home, they are officially stateless.
For decades, outbreaks of violence have forced thousands to flee, many across the border to Bangladesh. From there, some move onto India and Malaysia, with the most recent waves coming in 2012 and again in 2016.
Bangladesh is not party to the UN convention on refugees and refuses to provide most Rohingya access to education, healthcare and work.
The country hasn’t registered any new refugees since 1992, according to the Burma Human Rights Yearbook, hoping the tough line will dissuade new arrivals.
Despite the influx of new refugees, the Bangladesh government’s line has remained consistent. “We hope the Rohingya will be able to return to Myanmar,” said Kaberi. “Our population levels are already an unbearable burden.”
But as conditions in Myanmar are worsening, the Rohingya continue to arrive, crowding the already over-populated camps in Cox’s Bazar.
In response, Bangladesh has floated the idea of relocating the Rohingya to Thengar Char, an uninhabited – and some unstable – newly formed silt island that emerged in 2006 from the Bay of Bengal.
“The government is making arrangements on the island for the Rohingya to provide them with food and homes,” said Additional District Controller Md. Saiful Islam Majmuder of the Hatiya local government, which administers the 30,000 hectares island. “We will provide all the facilities they need,” he added.
But not everyone agrees. The planned relocation will result in an “humanitarian disaster” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
Sending refugees to an island that “floods at high tide, has no potable water or potential for agriculture, and is infested with pirates, is the equivalent of a death sentence,” he added.
Roshon Jaman escaped from her village in Myanmar in November 2016. She is now staying with relatives who have lived in the Kutupalong refugee camp south of Cox’s Bazar since the 1990s. She sifted rice while her nephews and nieces gathered as we spoke.
In Rakhine, Jaman said she was often afraid to leave her house at night through fear, she says, that her neighbors, part of Myanmar’s majority Buddhist population, would attack her. Even so, she was reluctant to move.
She had papaya and mango trees she planted as a girl and a garden bulging with sweet potato and pumpkin.
But she said when her uncle and cousin, who lived at the other end of the village, were burned alive in their homes by Myanmar military personnel, she left.
The incident occurred during a four-month military-led counter-terrorism operation, initiated in response to a spate of Rohingya militant attacks on border posts on October 9 that left nine police officers dead.
The Myanmar army has repeatedly said its response to the attacks was proportionate and has denied allegations that it targeted civilians.
Authorities have denied claims the military burned down houses as part of the pursuit of the offenders.
The government-owned New Light of Myanmar newspaper published photos of an area that Human Rights Watch said had suffered arson attacks, that showed only minimal damage. A panel from the Myanmar army attributed the damage to “Rohingya militants.”
According to an International Crisis Group report, the Rohingya militants were part of the Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement), an emerging Muslim insurgency.
Many of the Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar have denied the claim, insisting the group is non-violent.
“The group is only to campaign for our rights and citizenship,” said Jaman.
‘Rape the mother and burn the house’
Hasna Akter fled Rakhine State with her family last December.
They said they had to sell their home for half its value to Burmese neighbors and paid smugglers about $620 to get into Bangladesh. Getting to the border was easy. “You’re Bengali, better run home,” the soldiers mocked, pointing the way with their rifles, she said.
The OHCHR report hints at the horror they left behind.
Researchers interviewed 204 Rohingya people who gave “consistent testimony indicating that hundreds of Rohingya houses, schools, markets, shops, madrasas and mosques were burned by the army, police and sometimes civilian mobs.”
Worse still, the report detailed widespread torture, gang rape and the butchering of children. When asked about this, Hasna Akter used her headscarf to dry tears.
“First, they get the men out of the house, then they rape the mother and burn the house down. If they like the women a lot, they take her to the camp, rape her again and then kill and bury her,” she said.
Deputy Director-General U Zaw Htay of the Myanmar President’s Office denied rape charges. “During the investigation into rape accusations in the conflict areas, local women replied that no rape cases happened,” he said at a press conference in November.
After crossing the Naf River that divides Myanmar’s Rakhine State and Bangladesh, Akter said the smuggler introduced them to a fishing captain who gave her husband a job. Now they live in an informal refugee settlement by the sea while their eight children slowly forget how to read and write.
They have received no aid apart from some rudimentary medicine from the International Organization for Migration. “Many journalists come to talk to us, but no one ever helps us,” said Akter.
Mohammed Shafiqul Huq, president of the central mosque in Cox’s Bazar, says that all Muslims should be concerned. “We want to help them but we have to get permission from the government,” adding that his mosque has not yet sought permission to do so.
Crimes against humanity?
Things have gotten much worse in recent years. Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the group found that “ethnic cleansing clearly took place during attacks on the Rohingya in June and October 2012.”
Robertson said the watchdog is now collecting evidence to show crimes against humanity took place at the end of 2016. The group’s task has been made tougher by strict restrictions by the Myanmar government on the movement of journalists and the UN Rights Council in Rakhine.
On March 24, the Human Rights Council decided to send a team to probe “alleged recent human rights violations by military and security forces.”
However, on June 30, Kyaw Zeya, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Reuters he would not give visas to the UN team.
Myanmar’s leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who this year denied any ethnic cleansing had taken place in Rakhine, has expressed resistance to the UN probe.
“We do not agree with it … [because] we do not think that the resolution is in keeping with what is actually happening on the ground,” she said in May while visiting the EU in Brussels.
Suu Kyi has also pointed out that there is already a domestic commission headed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan assessing the Rakhine situation.
According to the commission’s website they intend to tackle “complex and delicate issues in Rakhine state in accordance with established international standards.” The problems include poverty, development, reconciliation and “assurance of basic rights.”
While politicians and civil society clash over definitions of human rights and ethnic cleansing, Rohingya people continue to board night boats to Teknaf in Bangladesh, hidden in tanks used to store the day’s catch.
Those who can’t afford to pay smugglers grab hold of tanks and try to float across the mile-wide Naf River.
Aktar and her family were lucky they raised enough money to pay a smuggler. Doubly so when the man found them work aboard the fishing boats, but it’s still unrelentingly tough to survive.
“If we don’t get any fish we only eat rice and salt,” said Aktar, squatting outside her home.
Tears in the tarpaulin roof were plugged with plastic and held in place with netting.
As she gutted tiny fish, lining them up, neat and shiny in a bowl on the earth, her eight children, husband, sister and brother-in-law watched in silence.