They’ve been called the worst treated refugees in the world: an estimated 200-500,000 Rohingya from the western Rakhine state in Burma live as illegal refugees in Bangladesh. Living in a shadowland between the two countries, where they remain the unseen victims of poverty.
Back in Burma, the Rohingya are not recognized as citizens, they are not free to marry, to move out of their village, or to work on their own land without being forced into labour for the army. If they are not present when the irregular roll calls are called in their villages, they are struck off the registers and become, in effect, invisible in their own country.
So many choose to flee to a life of slow starvation in Bangladesh.
This story features on this week's South Asia Wired radio programme. Click below (or here) to listen to the show.
Less than 28,000 Rohingya refugees are registered in Bangladesh and housed in the “five star” camps run by the UNHCR where they can receive at least basic rations and schooling for their children. The rest – hundreds of thousands of people - are scattered around the country living illegal shadow lives.
A few thousand more live in what many seasoned international NGO workers call the worst camps they’ve ever seen.
Kutapalong camp near Cox’s Bazar in southern Bangladesh houses some 20,000 illegal refugees, crammed into a maze of miniature muddy alleys and huts made of plastic, mud and twigs. During the heavy monsoon rains, the huts are washed away almost as soon as they are repaired.
Some men manage to travel to town to work as day labourers, fishermen or rickshaw pullers, but they are prey to corrupt police and border guards looking for bribes and exploitative employers who pay them a fraction of the already meager Bangladeshi day wage.
The Rohingya camps, teeming with the children of the extraordinarily large families, receive almost no help from aid agencies. This is not because the aid agencies don't want to; the Bangladesh government is reluctant to allow any form of outside help.
Just this summer it flatly refused permission for the implementation of a 30 million euro project that had already been OK'd by the EU, and which would have benefitted local poor Bangladeshis as well as the destitute Rohingya.
The government says it wants to avoid a “pull factor” where access to aid, food, medicines and education may attract more of the 800,000 Rohingya currently in Burma.
Meanwhile back in Kutapalong, the sound of digging for the daily burials continue, and as evening falls, little girls emerge with made up faces – on their way, I’m told in a whisper, to contribute in their own way to their families’ meager finances.
My little group has attracted too much attention, and the crowd of children is getting too much to handle. People are trying to pull me to visit their crippled child, the husband back in the hut with an untreated disease, the man with the broken leg who has nothing but a paracetamol to ease his pain.
My fixer wants to get me out of there before the police comes and start asking uncomfortable questions.
But as I’m leaving, Nural Amin, head of a family of ten, poses a question that haunts me long after I’ve physically left Kuatapalong: “Why doesn’t anyone recognise us, give us citizenship? We don’t want so much – just the right to survive. Of the 192 countries in this world, there is not one country that wants to take us. Did we drop out of the sky? Are we not human?”