Bangladesh: 'Rohingya – a people without hope', winner of the Minority Voices young Journalist Award

The English translation of the story below won the Minority Voices Young Journalist Award, a prize awarded by Minority Rights Group (MRG) to young professional and student journalists covering issues affecting minority and indigenous communities in developing countries. Journalist Per Liljas’ entry was described by judges as “outstanding, brilliant and a cut above the rest”. Winners were announced in March and Liljas, who took top honours for his photo and print story, will receive funding to travel to a developing country to report on issues facing a minority or indigenous community. Liljas’ story was published in 2010 in The Caravan magazine, Upsala Nya Tidning, a Swedish magazine, and on the web portal Amnesty Press.

Rohingya – a people without hope

Nasima is sitting on the floor of her neighbours’ hut, helping out to grind chilli. If there is enough food, she will get some in exchange for her effort. If not, it is at least an opportunity to leave her home for a little while. Between the empty clay walls in her own hut, the memories are too vivid. And further away, towards the village or the forest, she does not dare to go.

Just like the other 30,000 Rohingya she is stuck here ­– in the temporary, illegal and ever-growing refugee camp Kutupalong in South Eastern Bangladesh.

“I live without hope,” Nasima says. “And now, with the monsoon and cyclones coming, how are we going to survive?”

Among all Burma’s oppressed minorities, the Rohingya is the most vulnerable. Officially, the three million strong ethnic group are counted as illegal immigrants – they are not allowed to move freely, they have to do forced labor and are arbitrarily punished by the military. Many choose to become illegal immigrants for real; today half of the population lives abroad.

Except for the constant trickle out of the country over land and sea, four exoduses has taken place over the years. The last one was in 1992, when a quarter of a million crossed the border to Bangladesh. That time the national election was a triggering factor. This year (2010), Burma is for the first time holding an election again.

Along the border to Bangladesh a four meter high barbed wire fence is now being raised. And in Bangladesh the past half year, the authorities are systematically clamping down on the Rohingya, arresting them and forcing them back over the border. Thousands of Rohingya choose to seek shelter among their own in temporary refugee camps, like Kutupalong.

Instead of security, what they find is something close to open-air prisons; camps where they risk being arrested or violated if they leave. The sanitary situation and the difficulties of providing for themselves has prompted international NGO:s like Médécins Sans Frontiers, MSF, to warn for a looming humanitarian crisis and direct harsh critique against the government.

After the exodus in 1992, China persuaded the rest of the world that the Rohingya question was an internal business between Burma and Bangladesh. Then they negotiated a deal where Bangladesh could send back the majority of the refugees that had just arrived.

The problem was just that many of the involuntary returnees came back to see their houses taken over by the military or even their names scratched from the population registers. A tough situation indeed, since Rohingya are not allowed to build new structures and unregistered individuals are considered as outlaws.

Nasima Begum’s father was arrested when she was ten years old, accused of housing returning refugees.

“They sent us his bloody clothes from the prison, one by one,” she says. “My mother was forced to sell everything to set him free. Land, house, cattle, clothes. But when he was finally released, he was already dying.”

In 2008, Nasima and her sister followed the stream of Rohingya who returned to Bangladesh. Their first year was calm – they got homes, got married, had children. But in September, policemen came to their homes, arrested them and drove them to the border river Naaf.

“I cried and asked the ferryman to show us a way back,” says Nasima. “I thought my last moment had arrived. If the border police had spotted us, it would have been through with us.”

In the end, the ferryman pointed out a road, and all night they ran through the jungle – Nasima with her five days old son in her arms, her husband, her sister and her sister’s husband.

“At dawn, the jungle started clearing up and we knew we were back in Bangladesh,”she says. “But when I looked down I saw that my son was dead. I hadn’t even noticed it happening. I buried him with my hands underneath a tree.”

Nasima and her relatives did not return to the community where they were living before, but found their way to the refugee camp Kutupalong. With the help of other refugees they managed to survive and build a house. The men started working as wage laborers in the surroundings. However one day, they did not return.

“Allah knows where they are now,” says Nasima. “Maybe they’re dead, maybe they’re arrested.”

Only a month later, her sister disappeared after going to the village to beg. Now Nasima has neither relatives nor income left.

Many Rohingya provide for themselves by gathering firewood in the forest, but Nasima does not dare to. Gatherers have been assaulted and raped by villagers at several occasions. The villagers are frustrated because it has become more difficult for them to find firewood and because their wages have been pressed down.

Local politicians have cashed in on the dissatisfaction and agitated villagers to increase the tensions further. District Commissionary Gias Uddin Ahmed however dismisses this as a problem – just as he dismisses the harsh critique by MSF.

He says:

“All refugees are actors at times. The only Rohingya we arrest are people who deal with illegal arms and narcotics. And the push-backs over the border are not many at all. The Rohingya are not Bangladesh’ problem, it is international, it exists in Thailand and Malaysia as well. As our Prime Minister has said, our goal is for them to return as soon as possible. She has already started the dialogue with Burma and visited China to get support. Hopefully, that can be a good sign.”

Since Bangladeshi authorities replied in tough words to MSF’s report, humanitarian agencies based in the country have not dared express opinions about the Rohingya. The United Nations keep diplomatically quiet as usual. After a visit in March, American Physicians for Human Rights reported that the health situation in Kutupalong is critical and that they hope that aid will be allowed to reach the needy. But Bangladeshi authorities seem to be uninterested in contributions from abroad. The topic is political and the Rohingya refugees have to go at any price.

That the new deal on mass deportation that the two countries are approaching is breaking international laws doesn’t seem to worry the people in power much. And the protests from the West lacks teeth so far, due to the unwillingness of starting an argument with China about their sphere of interest. All the while, not only Nasima’s survival through the next monsoon is at stake – but the future existence of the Rohingya.


  • Rohingya is a Muslim ethnicity with at least partial heritage in what nowadays is Bangladesh. One reason why Burma’s government, and also parts of the population, disapprove of the Rohingya is because they supported the British colonial rule back in the days.
  • Cox’s Bazar, where most of the refugees arrive and where Kutupalong is situated, is one of Bangladesh’ poorest provinces.
  • When Thai authorities in January 2009 towed out and left boats filled with Rohingya refugees at open sea, it was breaking news all over the world.
  • Burma’s parliamentary election this year is meant to be the fifth step in a seven step way from military dictatorship to democracy. International analysts already deem the election to become unfree.

PHOTO: Noor Nahar escaped to Bangladesh with her husband nine years ago. Not able to find a job, he found himself a seat on a refugee boat to Malaysia. Since then, Noor has not heard from her husband, and tries to take careof their six children on her own. (Per Liljas)


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The Rohingya’s future is uncertain. Credit: Per Liljas
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The sanitary situation in the refugee camps is serious. Credit: Per Liljas
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Oppressed wherever they come, the future is uncertain for the Rohingya people. Credit: Per Liljas
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Date: 06/06/2010




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