Arakan's hope of life beyond the camps

Thousands of Arakan refugees have left lives in Bangladeshi camps in search of opportunities in Malaysia.

Arakan's hope of life beyond the camps

World Bulletin / News Desk 

Walking towards the edge of the River Naf on Bangladesh's border with Myanmar, Zahid Hossain’s stride abruptly falters.

“Are you going there?” the 28-year-old says, pointing towards the river's dock, where a cluster of uniformed coastguard officers are standing.

"There are police there,” he continues. “They might interrogate me. You know, I don’t have a national ID card of this country so they will ask me why I am here.”

Hossain is a registered refugee who arrived in Bangladesh as a five-year-old, but he - and around 250,000 others - says they are mostly restricted to lives in refugee camps.

It's a longing for life beyond these camps - with freedom to move, study and work - that is pushing young Arakan into risky trips to Malaysia aboard overcrowded fishing trawlers.

“The main problem is arbitrary arrests where they’re put in prison and not given a lawyer,” an aid worker who works with Arakan refugees tells on condition of anonymity.

“In 2010, 56 Arakan day laborers were put in jail when they arrived on the docks,” he says, adding that he asked the police why the men had been arrested on that day, despite regularly working in that area.

“The only violation was the border act," he says, adding that the officer had just said "they were arrested because they entered Bangladesh illegally.”

The 32,000 living in official camps are given United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) identity cards but, according to Arakan activist Zafor Alam Dipu, they are rarely accepted at the many police checkpoints that dot the border areas where the Arakan population is concentrated.

“It’s a different pressure in Bangladesh," says Dipu. "Not like [the persecution of] Myanmar, but a different kind... Youth can’t do any higher study, they can’t integrate with any regular Bangladeshi youth.”

Dipu, who shuttles between Bangladesh and Myanmar, and also runs a small pharmacy near the Kutupalong refugee camp, is adamant that nothing alienates Arakan youth in Bangladesh more than their exclusion from education.

Registered refugees have recently been allowed to study up to the age of 13 – until 2014, the age limit was 11 – but in reality, many schools still do not accept their registration, he says.

For the unregistered majority, going to school is not an option. Since 2012, the government has restricted all aid in unofficial camps and has only this year began to reauthorize aid agencies to help the unregistered population.

“I was in jail nine times, I used to give tuition to children and that’s why I was jailed,” says Dipu. “They can’t be admitted into any school with their UNHCR cards. They have to make fake documents but if it’s discovered, they will be banned.”

Zahid Hossain, who now helps educate other Arakan, says police have, in the past, punished those who studied.

“We used to study very secretly, with our sheets over our heads. But police would come and say why are we studying? Is this your country to study?” says Hossain. “Some were arrested, they had their fingers broken and their nails were pulled.”

Hossain says that traffickers - some Arakan, others Bangladeshi - approach Arakan youth who have few options after finishing school, and entice them with trips to Malaysia by asking for only 5,000 Bangladeshi taka ($64) up front.

“They say that one big, strong boat is coming from Thailand. They say go to some locations, like Chittagong, St. Martin’s Island or Cheradip and get onto the boats there,” he says.

He said that he was also tempted to make such a trip, before deciding to dedicate his time to working within the community as a teacher.

“It is mostly men, but some families. Women are going in large numbers nowadays,” he says. “The male phones the wife [from Malaysia] and says to come. The woman is crazy to see her husband after all these years and goes with all their children.”

Bakthiar Ahmed, a local landowner who runs the unofficial settlements in the southeastern area of Kutupalong, says the numbers leaving has increased dramatically in the last year.

“Maybe they’re tired of living here for the last 24 years with no education, healthcare, work or recognition. Everyone wants a better life,” says Ahmed, adding that maybe 5,000 have left from the camp he runs.

“Bangladeshi government has extensive restrictions on Arakan. Some had started education in outside schools but the government restricted it. They feel they don’t have a settled life here so those who can get some money, they go.”

Güncelleme Tarihi: 21 Mayıs 2015, 13:36