Rohingya refugees in bangladesh: even those who help need help

The many Rohingya from Burma are positively welcomed in their poor host country. But the local population is overwhelmed in the long term.

"We can feed 160 million people, so we can feed 700,000 Rohingya refugees," says Bangladesh’s prime minister Photo: dpa

By now, there are likely more Burmese Rohingya in the border area than local Bangladeshis. In the last two weeks, a good third of all Rohingya from Burma (Myanmar) have fled to the neighboring country. The minority is seeking protection from a brutal military offensive against so-called terrorists.

Bangladesh is the most densely populated country in the world. "We are a poor country. The refugees are a big problem for us," says Mohammed Azae. He has a clothing store in Cox’s Bazar. He has gathered a few pieces from his stock, wrapped cookies in them and set off with a friend in the direction of the refugee camp.

Is he angry that Burma is saddling them with this problem? "We are angry that the soldiers are killing Muslims," he says. Refugees coming across the border river or sea are fleeing gunfire, arson and knife attacks by the military, which places all Rohingya under general suspicion after an attack by insurgents.

So did two men from Burma, a woman and her baby. They were on the road for 15 days until they met Mohammed Azae, who put a bundle of cookies in their hands. While people in the capital Dhaka are protesting against the "genocide against the Rohingya", people in the border area are busy trying to find the fastest way to help the refugees. While the aid organizations have to proceed in a coordinated manner, the Bangladeshis engage in activism. Vehicles regularly push past the camps, from which pieces of clothing and food are thrown. In the process, scuffles break out again and again.

Wages cut in half, food prices rise

"We urgently need help from abroad," says Mohammed Azae, after showing photos on his smartphone of atrocities committed by the Burmese military that he believes are authentic. Day laborers in Bangladesh in particular have had a hard time surviving since they started earning less, he said. "A Bangladeshi takes 500 taka, a Rohingya only 200," the 32-year-old explains. In the markets, fish has become a rare commodity. Because of the mass of refugees, bus drivers now charge double the fare. Food prices have risen.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Sheik Hasina visited the border area. "We can feed 160 million people, so we can feed 700,000 Rohingya refugees," she said. For decades, Bangladesh has provided shelter to about half a million officially stateless Rohingya from oppression in their homeland. Hasina called for support for the refugees and urged the international community to pressure Burma to take back the Rohingya. At the same time, plans to resettle Rohingya on an uninhabitable island in the Bay of Bengal are being discussed again.

The Dhaka Tribune called for "aggressive diplomacy" toward Burma and called on the government to increase monitoring of possible terrorist activities. Islamist attacks are frequent in Bangladesh.