Forgotten crisis: Stateless in Bangladesh
As the rich and powerful gathered in Davos last week, a Refugee Run (simulation of life as a refugee) aimed to bring home to a select group of delegates the contrast between their privileged lives and the uncertainties and misery of the world's refugees. My colleagues Michael Bodakowski and Melody Fox Ahmed made a visit that accomplished that goal far more effectively: to a camp in Bangladesh where Muslim Aid, a UK-based, Islamic-inspired group, works with the Rohingya people.
The Rohingya situation is described as the world's most forgotten crisis and one of the most desperate. The Rohingya are a mostly Muslim people whose homeland is northwest Burma. Persecuted in Buddhist Burma, in large part because of their Muslim faith, waves of Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh. Some 28,000 are "official" refugees, living for close to two decades in United Nations refugee camps. But at least another 200,000 live in a painful limbo, stateless, unwelcome and unrecognized in the country where they find themselves.
The position of the Rohingya is certainly complex and it creates a delicate situation that neither the government of Bangladesh nor refugee organizations particularly want to address. The Bangladesh government views the Rohingyas as economic migrants. They are reluctant to change that because conferring refugee status might well encourage other Rohingya to flee across the porous border. As unregistered refugees, the Rohingya have no rights in Bangladesh and are not entitled to receive help from the UN's official refugee body, UNHCR. There is no process for them to gain citizenship. Indeed, the Bangladesh government, facing plenty of problems among its own citizens, discourages a focus on the Rohingya for fear that it would detract from efforts to help Bangladesh's poorest citizens. With some 40 percent of Bangladesh's population of 160 million considered poor, it's understandable.
One reason the Rohingya fled to Bangladesh is that they share a common religion, Islam. Even so, there are tensions, mostly linked to raw economic and social competition but also to differences in religious practice. There are disturbing reports of violence and persecution, including rapes and other brutality. These are people who are vulnerable from any direction you look. They have been in this limbo for decades, raising children and trying, day to day, to survive, with no end in sight.
The Bangladesh government has allowed ECHO, the European Commission's Humanitarian branch, to provide limited support. ECHO works closely with two Muslim international organizations, Muslim Aid and Islamic Relief. Because of the shared Islamic faith, the government accepts their role. The two NGOs find that they can help more effectively than non-Muslim groups because they appreciate the culture and faith of the people they aim to serve.
So Muslim Aid is working in the very real if unofficial Leda camp, with some 13,000 people, which Michael and Melody visited. Resources are very limited, and the focus is on three top priorities: a health clinic, nutrition for malnourished children, and rudimentary schools. Keenly aware of both social tensions with people in the area and the shared needs of both, Muslim Aid's programs reach out to the surrounding communities. But there is far too little to go around.
The most poignant moment of the visit was a conversation with a young girl suffering from terrible burns after an accident at the house where she worked as a maid. She had been dumped unceremoniously at the gates of the camp, and its administrators were struggling to help her as best they could. Apart from the terrible pain that goes with burn injuries all over her body, the girl was entirely alone, with no rights, no resources, and no avenue of protection. And the girl's situation - serious burns that might have come from an accident or something worse, and no one to care about or for her--was a daily reality.
The Rohingya dilemma is one of many seemingly intractable situations that drag on and on, awaiting the elusive political solutions that alone can offer an out for the 42 million people that official United Nations statistics report as refugees and Internally displaced internally displaced people. Sadly, over 70 percent of these people are Muslims. That is something that worthy Muslim-inspired organizations like Muslim Aid and Islamic Relief take very much to heart. As Fadlullah Wilmot, who has worked for both organizations, remarked: "I think as people of faith we need to understand the horrible dilemma that a person has if they don't have a passport. It means that they don't belong anywhere. So it is the responsibility of people who have religion to have compassion and to be accepting of these people and to work to ensure these people get their basic human rights." Amen.
Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.
By Katherine Marshall |
January 31, 2011; 12:46 AM ET
Faith in Action
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