Lacking adequate food, shelter and sanitation, many Rohingya Muslim refugees who fled into Bangladesh from Myanmar are marrying local men in the hope of achieving citizenship and basic services.
Such marriages are illegal, and often involve polygamy, child marriage or abandonment, BenarNews learned during a recent visit to Rohingya refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh.
Yet both sides see potential advantages – at least at first.
Sultan Ahmed, a 29-year-old resident of Teknaf sub-district in Cox’s Bazar, recently married Samuda Begum, 16, who entered Bangladesh from Myanmar seven or eight years ago and lives in the Muchhni Rohingya camp.
“My first wife has no problem; I have married again as a hobby,” Sultan, a father of three, told BenarNews. “I live with my first wife; I often go to Samuda and give her some money for daily expenses.”
After crossing the border three years ago to escape violence and hunger in Myanmar, Nazu Begum, now 25, married a Bangladeshi man who has since abandoned her.
“I got married with a man from Noakhali with the hope of getting citizenship. Life had been peaceful. But my husband left Teknaf after the birth of two children,” said Nazu, who lives in Kochubunia, a village just across the border from the Maungdaw district of Myanmar.
Her husband’s care for his family “withered away” after his work as a mason in Teknaf dried up, Nazu said. Like Samuda, she remains stateless.
But Nazu, who works as a maid at hotels and homes, has no plans to return to Myanmar. “I will educate my children here and settle here,” Nazu told BenarNews.
‘Our first choice’
U.N. officials say some 65,000 Rohingya Muslims have entered Bangladesh since October 2016, fleeing a brutal military crackdown launched on the minority community in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state after Rohingya militants attacked border guard posts, killing nine officers.
Many women said they fled to Bangladesh with their children after security forces either killed or took away their husbands. In addition, 17 of 54 women BenarNews interviewed in the camps said they had been raped before crossing the border.
But life in Bangladesh is also full of hardship.
Prior to the latest influx, about 35,000 refugees lived in Cox’s Bazar in two UN-registered refugee camps, and 300,000 more in vast settlements immediately adjacent, where many homes are constructed of bamboo and plastic, and roughly 5,000 people have access to a single water source and latrine, a BenarNews correspondent witnessed.
Bangladesh has refused to grant the Rohingya refugee status because it considers them citizens of Myanmar, while Myanmar considers the Rohingya illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and has denied then citizenship and access to basic services for decades.
Rohingyas are eager for citizenship as a way to escape the camps, gain civic rights and remain in Bangladesh. Families are willing to accept polygamy or much older men for their daughters because they believe the marriage will secure their future in Bangladesh.
“There is no education opportunity (in the camps); (we) have to share a small room with many children. So, the children are arranged marriage as soon as they reach adulthood. Bangladeshi boys and girls are our first choice,” Nur Mohammad, a resident of Leda camp, told BenarNews.
‘Nobody abides by the law’
Yet the path to citizenship is far from guaranteed.
Marriages with non-citizens cannot be registered in Bangladesh. And since the marriage is not registered, authorities cannot take legal actions against men who marry Rohingya women.
“Marrying a Rohingya is an offense, but nobody abides by the law. A Rohingya couple thinks they can stay here legally if one of their children is married with a Bangladeshi national,” Mohammad Ali, a former lawmaker from Teknaf, told BenarNews.
“So, they do not hesitate to settle marriage of a young girl with an aged Bangladeshi man. Such condition is making way for the local men to marry again; this has become a social blight,” Ali said Ali.
“Getting Bangladeshi citizenship is not easy even when they marry the locals; but the procedure is easier if they marry a Bangladeshi,” said Mozammel Haque, president of Rohingya Resistance Committee, a Teknaf-based organization that opposes Rohingya integration into Bangladesh.
If a wife or husband lives with a Bangladeshi spouse, they may be entered onto voter lists or put in line to receive a national identity card, because the two populations are hard to tell apart, locals told BenarNews.
Authorities say they have no data on how many Rohingya are marrying Bangladeshis, or how many achieve citizenship this way.
“We have been trying to stop marriage between the Rohingya and the Bangladeshis; we take measures to stop it whenever we get such tip off,” Ali Hossain, the deputy commissioner of Cox’s Bazar, told BenarNews.
“But marriage is a matter of mutual understanding and hard to check if done secretly,” he said.