Forgotten in Myanmar, 129,000 Rohingya languish in camps

Phyo Hein KYAW, Hla-Hla HTAY
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Conditions in Thet Kel Pyin camp suggest a dire need for food, education, jobs and medical services

Abdurahim worries the lack of food, medicine and free movement is doing lasting damage to his four young children, who are among more than 129,000 Rohingya Muslims trapped in squalid camps inside Myanmar's Rakhine state.

In the grimy, rubbish-strewn alleyways of Thet Kel Pyin camp, near the state capital Sittwe, children gather around a slaughtered cow, a rare chance to eat meat on the second day of the Eid al-Adha festival.

Most of the camp's residents were forced from their homes in 2012, victims of ethnic and religious hatreds that have simmered for decades.

Cut off from outside contact, their plight is rarely reported.

Abdurahim, 46, fears that everyday life in the camp -- split communities, restricted movement for the Rohingya and dependency on relief handouts -- will shape his children forever.

Aged between eight and 17, their formative years have been spent in Thet Kel Pyin, where the family arrived six years ago.

"What kind of memory comes into their head? They think only one ethnicity lives like this," Abdurahim -- whose Myanmar name is Shwe Hla -- told AFP.

"Their vision is becoming like this."

His family's struggle is overshadowed by the vast scale of the Rohingya refugee exodus into neighbouring Bangladesh that began one year ago.

An army crackdown last August saw 700,000 of the persecuted minority flee over the border to one of the world's largest refugee camps in violence the UN and US have likened to ethnic cleansing.

- Grim reality -

Conditions in Thet Kel Pyin, witnessed during a brief visit late Wednesday on a government-steered press trip, suggested a dire need for food, education, jobs and medical services.

But it is probably among the better camps in Rakhine, where government minders are willing to take media and visiting dignitaries.

The first step to improving the grim reality of internally displaced Rohingya is "freedom of movement", Abdurahim, once a prosperous owner of a construction business in Sittwe, said.

Myanmar says it is ready and willing to repatriate the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh since last year.

But it has complicated the process with bureaucracy while the refugees refuse to return without guarantees of safety, security and compensation.

The UN has said conditions in Myanmar are not ripe for a safe and voluntary repatriation, especially given the desperate conditions in camps such as Thet Kel Pyin, established after previous rounds of violence.

To head off criticism, Myanmar says it will close nearly 20 of the camps in coming months.

State media on Tuesday said one camp had been closed at Ni Din in the Kyauktaw area of Rakhine, following recommendations by the late United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan released last year.

Kaman Muslims live alongside the Rohingya in the camps, where many struggle with deteriorating health.

"After six years here, our health is worsening," said Thin Mya, a 64-year-old Kaman Muslim mother of four. "The rooms are so close to each other so... the health problem is getting bigger."

Myanmar's government denies allegations of ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, yet labels them "Bengalis" non-native to the Buddhist-majority country.

It insists that any Rohingya who return from Bangladesh should take up a National Verification Card, a form of ID that falls short of citizenship and denies them full rights.

"Why do we need to hold this National Verification Card?" said Abdurahim. "We have lived here for generations."