Refugees boost net profits for fishing village in Bangladesh

News Stories, 31 January 2013

Rohingya fishermen are valued along Bangladesh's coast for their willingness to fish even in rough waters.

TEKNAF, Bangladesh, January 31 (UNHCR) Along one of the world's longest stretches of sandy beach, groups of men brace themselves every night for the adventure ahead. They roll up their longyi, a sarong-like wrap commonly worn in the region, and board boats guided by the moonlight.

They leave at midnight when the sea is calmer. Some return by the following afternoon. Others could be at sea for up to 10 days, returning with hauls of fish, crabs, shrimps and other seafood. According to a local leader in a fishing village in Teknaf in south-eastern Bangladesh, 95 per cent of the fishermen are ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar.

"This village hosts many Rohingya, between 5,000 and 10,000. Some fled here from Myanmar more than 20 years ago. They live near the beach in handmade huts. Some come from the refugee camps to work here," said Salem,* a local politician in Teknaf.

Some 30,000 registered refugees are hosted in two official camps Kutupalong and Nayapara in the south-east. In addition, an estimated 200,000 unregistered Rohingya live in makeshift sites or among the local community with assistance.

While local rhetoric has focused on the burden these refugees place on an already densely-populated area, in reality they share close links with their host communities.

"Before, we could only fish in winter, during the dry season. But the Rohingya are fearless, so they can fish all year, even during the rainy season," said Salem in Teknaf. "The locals need them. The economy depends on them."

In return, the Bangladeshi employers provide accommodation basic shacks with flimsy bamboo walls and plastic-sheeted roofs fenced off with used fishing nets draped over twig frames. The fishermen and their families also receive food, and salary advances if needed. If they are arrested for being unregistered, their employer intervenes to secure their release.

It seems like a win-win situation for both the Rohingya and their hosts. But there's a catch. "When a Rohingya dies at sea, nothing will happen," said Salem. "There is often no contract and no compensation to the family."

The lack of a formal safety net means that when tragedy strikes, unregistered Rohingya families are often left to fend for themselves.

Aisha's* husband fished here for 20 years. When he didn't return one day, she thought he was dead, until she received a call 12 days later. He had boarded a smuggler's boat for South-east Asia but was held in Thailand by the smugglers, who demanded money for his release.

Unable to pay and left alone with several children in Teknaf, Aisha is completely at sea about her future. "I will just continue my life," she said blankly, hoping against hope that her host's hospitality will not run dry.

*Names changed for protection reasons

By Vivian Tan in Teknaf, Bangladesh




UNHCR country pages

Desperation on the Andaman Sea

For days, they were an undertow, an unseen tide of people adrift in the Andaman Sea. UNHCR and its partners had warned that thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis were held captive at sea, then abandoned as their crew fled government crackdowns on smuggling and trafficking networks.

Then a green boat surfaced on TV, packed with emaciated men, crying women and sick children, all dehydrated, hungry and desperate. It gave a face to the problem, then vanished overnight. After five days drifting between the coasts of Thailand and Malaysia, some 400 people on board were finally rescued by Indonesian fishermen in the early hours of May 20.

They are among more than 3,000 lucky ones who have been able to come ashore since May 10 in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, where UNHCR is helping to assess their needs. Thousands more could still be stranded at sea. In a welcome statement on May 20, the Foreign Ministers of Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to bring these vulnerable people to shore - a move that will hopefully end the long nightmare at sea.

Desperation on the Andaman Sea

Myanmar IDPs pick up the pieces in Rakhine state

A humanitarian crisis is unfolding across Myanmar's Rakhine state, where some 115,000 people are desperately in need of aid after being displaced during two waves of inter-communal violence in June and October 2012. The displaced, most of them ethnic Rohingya, have sought shelter in temporary relief camps and others remain scattered across the state, living under tight security in their destroyed villages. Conditions are harsh: the camps are overcrowded and some lack even the most basic of sanitation facilities while many of the villages are totally destroyed and running low on water. In one village, more than 32 families were living cheek-by-jowl in just two large tents. The children have no access to education and the newborn and elderly are in a very vulnerable position due to a lack of medical facilities. UNHCR is distributing relief supplies and working with the authorities and partners to improve camp conditions, but international assistance is required.

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Living Silence: Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

"Living Silence" is a photographic exhibition of one of the world's most enduring refugee crises, by award-winning photographer Saiful Huq Omi.

Bangladesh has hosted refugees for over three decades. Today, 28,000 refugees from Myanmar known as the Rohingya - an ethnic, religious and linguistic minority people - are living in the two official refugee camps in the south-east of Bangladesh. Over half of them are children, many of whom have only ever experienced life in the camps. It is estimated that there are a further 200,000 Rohingya living outside the camps, unable to return to Myanmar where they fear persecution and exploitation.

Like refugees around the world, the Rohingya refugees are survivors. They are living in transience, waiting for the day they can go home in safety and in dignity. Until then, like any other people, they aspire to live a life free from violence and exploitation.

Together with other UN agencies and NGOs, UNHCR provides shelter, water, primary education and health care to refugees from Myanmar in the Nayapara and Kutupalong camps. UNHCR is also working with governments around the world to resettle some of the most vulnerable.

Living Silence: Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

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