Every night up to 30 Rohingya refugees – men, women and children – sleep next to each other in Maimuna Begum’s 21- by 21-foot hut at the Leda refugee camp in southeastern Bangladesh.
The mat they rest on covers soil in her bamboo and plastic hut, which is divided into a kitchen and living room. Because space is so tight there’s hardly room for the occupants to turn their bodies as they shift in their sleep.
Rohingya refugees like Begum, who have been here for years and survived amid miserable conditions, are taking in exhausted, hungry and traumatized newcomers who trekked for days to escape a fresh explosion of violence in Rakhine, their home state in neighboring Myanmar, as a BenarNews correspondent observed during a visit to the camp this week.
“We, 13 members, had been living in this room. But, recently, 16 people have taken refuge at our room. They are our men. They are hapless; they lost everything in Arakan [Rakhine]. We have to shelter them no matter how difficult it is for us,” Begum told BenarNews.
Leda, one of 12 refugee camps and settlements scattered across southeastern Bangladesh along the Myanmar border, has swollen to nearly 28,000 residents, and about half are Rohingya Muslims who fled from Rakhine amid the new wave of arrivals since Aug. 25, according to the latest situation report from the Inter Sector Coordination Group.
The ISCG coordinates the humanitarian response to the refugee situation in southeast Bangladesh among government and international agencies and aid groups.
“Every family has sheltered at least 10 new Rohingya. Twenty to 30 people sleep in a room,” Begum said.
‘Struggling to shelter them’
Begum and her family live in Block C at Leda Camp in Teknaf, a sub-district of Cox’s Bazar. Begum fled to southeastern Bangladesh in 2012 when an earlier cycle of violence in Rakhine sent thousands of Rohingya across the border.
At least 420,000 Rohingya refugees have arrived in Bangladesh as they sought shelter from the newest wave of violence in Rakhine, according to the ISCG.
The new influx has doubled the overall Rohingya refugee population to more than 800,000 people and strained humanitarian resources, according to relief agencies.
“Every day, more and more refugees are coming in. We are really struggling to shelter them,” Fazlar Rahman, a team leader with NGO Bangla-German Sompriti, who works at Leda Camp, told BenarNews.
Some of the new arrivals say they feel safer now that they’ve crossed into the relative haven of Bangladesh and away from Rakhine where military forces and local militia allegedly have been targeting Rohingya in atrocities. Those began after coordinated attacks on border police outposts by an insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, in late August.
“We are relieved that the [Myanmar] military or the Mogh would not find us and kill us here. But life is very difficult here. Many of us were rich in Rakhine,” one of the new refugees at Leda, who identified himself as “Alam,” told BenarNews, using a name that refers to members of Rakhine’s Buddhist majority.
Another newcomer to Leda, Jamila Khatun, 45, was sheltering in the hut of fellow refugee Sabbir Majhi, after having escaped with her newly orphaned 18-month-old grandson from their neighborhood in Maungdaw township, Rakhine.
“Two days before the Eid-ul-Adha [Sept. 2], the military first shot dead my son, Bashirullah, and then raped my daughter-in-law, Sharifa. They killed Sharifa after the rape by cutting her belly,” Khatun told BenarNews.
Leda occupies 25 acres in the hills near Teknaf town. It is one of the so-called unregistered camps that sprouted up in southeastern Bangladesh amid the humanitarian fallout from the strife in Rakhine five years ago.
Because the camp’s population is not registered with the Bangladeshi government, the refugees cannot benefit from public services including education. However, the camp has potable water and sanitation facilities and donor agencies and NGOs have given money to build up its infrastructure.
A narrow paved road cut through the middle of the camp, but the thoroughfare was crowded with pedestrian traffic when BenarNews visited it earlier this week. Rickety structures made of bamboo, plastic and tarpaulin similar to Begum’s home lined both sides of the street.
Rohingya children here were playing in the road or in nearby fields. Many others could be seen begging along the Teknaf-Cox’s Bazar highway.
To eke out a living, the camp’s male residents work to earn meager wages as day laborers and agricultural workers. Others work as fishermen on a contract basis.
Many of the women don’t have day jobs and resort to begging as they hold their children in their laps.
“We cannot afford fish or meat. Rice and chili-onion mixture is our main food. Without begging, how we can live with a daily income of 200 taka [U.S. $2.47],” a Rohingya mother of seven living at Leda told BenarNews.