The vise tightens on Rohingya in Bangladesh

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TEKNAF, BANGLADESH — "I've lost everything in my life and now I can only pray that I don't get sent back to Burma," Haziqah, a 27-year-old female Rohingya refugee, told The Irrawaddy from her half-built mud hut in the unofficial Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh.

Before coming to the camp, Haziqah lived in the Bandarban Hill Tract, about 150 km to the north, where many Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in Burma have settled. She had just given birth at the time, and so was unable to work, but she and her husband managed to survive on the meager wages he earned from odd jobs in the area.

However, their hopes of leading a quasi-normal existence were crushed when one morning soldiers from Bangladeshi border force, the BDR, stormed their village, rounded up all the Rohingyas living there, and marched them towards the border.

En route, she said, the soldiers beat her husband severely and pushed her along, ignoring the one-week-old baby in her arms. When they reached the top of a hill bordering Burma, the soldiers simply gave them a shove to send them back to the country from which they had fled.

In the chaos, she was separated from her husband; she later received reports that he had been captured by the Nasaka, the Burmese border force operating in Arakan State. She and some other women hired a boat to take them back to Bangladesh. When they arrived, Haziqah realized that her baby had died along the way.

Similar stories of brutality at the hands of the Bangladesh Rifles, as the paramilitary border force is known, are common among new arrivals at the makeshift camp. Like Haziqah, many of the women have been separated from their husbands and must struggle to find food and look after their children by themselves.

Since tensions broke out in August between Bangladesh and Burma's ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) over the latter's construction of a border fence, arrests and forced repatriation of Rohingya refugees has dramatically increased.

In Cox's Bazar, a district in southern Bangladesh where many Rohingya live in both unofficial camps and in camps supported by the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, different opinions are circulating as to why arrests have increased, but one NGO worker stated the most prominent one.

"The construction of the border fence means that the BDR will no longer be able to push back the Rohingya without the SPDC knowing; instead, they will have to pass through the gates," he explained.

"The Bangladeshi government is afraid. In a way it's a race against time to send back as many Rohingya refugees as they can, before construction is completed," he added.

In order to escape arrest, many have fled to the unofficial camp, which unlike the UNHCR camp next door, receives no food rations. The Bangladeshi government refuses to accept Rohingya who arrived in the country after 1991 as refugees and instead labels them illegal migrants, leaving them to fend for themselves.

As a result of the influx of Rohingya refugees from the "push back" areas, the little food available to the refugees must be shared among more mouths, creating problems in the camps.

Unrecognized by the Bangladeshi government, NGOs are unable to provide food for the refugees, leaving them to find work in the nearby area. However, recent arrests at checkpoints, to and from the workplace, have led to many being too afraid to leave the camp to find work.

Zawpe, a Rohingya leader in Kutupalong camp, told The Irrawaddy that more than 500 people were arrested last month and another 100 so far this month.

"Because of the arrests, conditions in the camp are very bad. People are too afraid to go outside to find food. The food crisis is alarming," he explained, standing at the top of a hill overlooking the maze of mud huts that make up the camp.

"The government doesn't let NGOs give us food and we are not allowed to work for food, so we are starving. It's 1 pm and most the camp hasn't eaten yet.

If the situation continues like this, then all the people will die."

Desperate for food, some of the men walk great distances to work and travel back to the camp at night in order to avoid arrest. According to Zawpe, some local villagers have learned about the refugees' nighttime routes and wait for the men to return so they can steal their money.

"Soon we might have no way to find food," he said.

With winter around the corner, many of the residents expressed concern about the cold months that lie ahead.

"I don't know how we will survive in the winter months without my husband," shrieked one woman as she fell to the floor of her hut in a flood of tears.

Earlier that morning, the BDR arrested her husband and 11 other Rohingya men when the bus they were on was stopped at a checkpoint. They were put into a police van and driven off.

There have been many reports of what fate awaits those who are "pushed back" to Burma. Although the BDR doesn't hand the refugees over to the Nasaka, many are caught by patrol units and held in their camps.

One man sitting in the refugee camp's makeshift teashop described how he was caught by the Nasaka after the BDR pushed him down the hill into Burmese territory. Having been severely beaten by the BDR, he was then beaten by the Nasaka and forced to prepare wires for the border fence to stop cross-border smuggling and Rohingya repatriation.

Some refugees who are pushed back manage to escape and return to Bangladesh, bringing with them stories of brutality that fuel fears of arrest. This has led to many of them being confined to the camps.

"From what we've seen, the number of men confined to the camps is increasing," said Paul Reynolds, the country director for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). "This is putting an added strain on a population of 24,000 outside the camps which is increasing and receiving very little humanitarian aid."

Another concern that the food crisis brings is the number of children working in the towns away from their families. Many Rohingya parents, desperate to find a way to feed their children, send them to stay with local Bangladeshi families as domestic helpers in exchange for food and a little pay.

One mother who had already made this decision said that she had found a family in Cox's Bazar that hired her two daughters, aged five and nine, to help around the house for 200 taka ($3) a month.

"I really didn't want to send them away," she explained quietly under the shadow of the black plastic garbage bag that served as the roof of her hut. "But we had no choice. My husband is missing and I can't find enough food for their survival. I feel so upset inside, though, and just keep telling them one day it will be ok and we can go back."

In Leda, the other unofficial camp, two hour's drive south of Kutupalong, refugees are equally concerned about their survival in the coming months as a result of travel restrictions which have been imposed by the BDR arrests.

The infrastructure here is marginally better and much work has been done by Islamic Relief, a UK-based aid agency. Previously, the residents were settled 10 minutes down the road on the bank of the river Naf. The conditions were so bad that MSF fought to have them moved away from the floods and the highway to the new site, and with government permission, they were able to build a durable infrastructure.

However, residents said that being next to the river had one advantage—the abundance of opportunities to make a livelihood. This wasn't a problem until very recently, when travel restrictions began, and now the residents are finding it increasingly difficult to find food.

"We have good shelter here, but we're finding it so hard to go outside to get food," said one English teacher from the Leda camp. "Before one of the biggest differences between our lives in Burma and here was that we could travel freely. Now we are facing the same travel restrictions that we did in Burma."

To make matters worse, Islamic Relief, which runs a clinic in the camp, has reported a malaria epidemic. There were 404 new infections last month and 30 more have been reported in November. This has sent alarm bells ringing in an environment where malaria could be fatal and people are already weak because of the lack of food.

Sitting in his two-room hut with his wife and three children, Faisal Islam shivered as his malaria-induced fever took its effect. He told The Irrawaddy how his family's main source of income was fishing on the nearby tourist island of St. Martins. However, this was cut off when a BDR boat found them and warned them they would be arrested and repatriated if they were caught there again.

"Now I have no chance to work because of this sickness, so I can't provide food for my family," he said. "For lunch, we had rice and sugar. We have none left, so I don't know what we will eat for dinner. Even if I get better, I don't know what I'll do for work.

I don't dare go back to my fishing place."

The situation for the Rohingya refugees is rapidly deteriorating and many NGO workers around Cox's Bazar voiced concerns at the fast approaching food crisis. The UNHCR has begun talks with the Bangladeshi government to try to improve the conditions of the unregistered refugees, but people remain pessimistic that it will bring about any change.

Already facing severe problems, with overpopulation and growing tensions between the Rohingya and the local population, the likelihood of the government taking on more refugees is slim. The main concern is that this would create another influx into an already resource-stretched Bangladesh. With no food assistance or legal recognition, the unregistered refugees in Bangladesh could face a serious threat to their existence in the coming months.

As one NGO worker put it: "The only thing the refugees can do now legally is starve."

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