DHAKA – Setara had already gone into labor when armed men arrived at her village in Myanmar’s Rakhine State last September.
“I was scared — I saw them killing two people — one of them was my uncle and the other was my neighbor,” she recalled. Setara managed to escape with her husband, and gave birth to her son a day later as they hid in a forest.
Now she’s pregnant again, and the conditions aren’t much better. Setara, who goes by one name, lives with her husband in Cox’s Bazar, a tourist district in neighboring Bangladesh that’s home to the world’s largest refugee camp. Like her, most are Rohingya Muslims who fled deadly attacks from security forces and local villagers.
The mud floor in the tiny shack where Setara lives is set to become saturated during the monsoon season beginning this week, and aid workers don’t have the funds to make her more comfortable. “I feel so bad sometimes, I can’t tell anyone,” she said during a recent visit, wiping tears from her face.
Setara is just one of about 40,000 pregnant women in the camp, according to the United Nations, many of whom are expected to give birth in the coming weeks. An unknown but significant share are the result of rapes committed by members of the Myanmar army and allied militants, the U.N. said.
Most of the women will struggle to find food, medicine and shelter, as similar heart-rending disasters in Syria, Yemen and Sudan compete for donor funds. Just 18 percent of $951 million requested has been received to assist more than 1.2 million Rohingya refugees and vulnerable Bangladeshis, according to the U.N. A supplementary appeal from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has attracted only 26 percent of the $238 million sought.
“It’s not that people are not giving — it’s just that it’s not enough,” Sheema Sen Gupta, deputy representative of UNICEF for Bangladesh, said in an interview on May 16.
“In the current appeal we’ve still a huge gap,” she said. “It’s not a good time to be a child in this world because of so many humanitarian crises. If we look at across the U.N., across the whole response for the Rohingya, it’s quite underfunded. And we are very worried.”
The numbers are staggering. More than 16,000 Rohingya babies were born in refugee camps and informal settlements in Bangladesh in the nine months since violence spiked in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, UNICEF said on May 17. Another 150,000 Rohingya refugees are in places at risk of landslides and floods, in what could become yet another disaster, UNHCR said.
The high numbers of refugees threaten to exacerbate tensions on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, A.N.M Muniruzzaman, a retired army officer and president of the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies, said.
“If the Rohingya crisis isn’t resolved soon, it may lead to a flare-up, which will ultimately increase border insecurity,” he said. “If Myanmar makes practical, sincere efforts, it will minimize tensions to a greater extent. It depends squarely on Myanmar.”
Bangladesh has made a series of efforts to repatriate the refugees, but little progress has been made, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said last month.
“We have signed a deal and ministers from Myanmar have visited Bangladesh and witnessed plights of the displaced people. But there was little progress in reality,” Hasina said during her meeting with Salil Shetty, secretary general of Amnesty International.
Myanmar announced Sunday that the first refugees to return from Bangladesh have been sent to a transit center pending their resettlement. The 58 refugees were initially detained for failing to follow proper repatriation procedures, according to the government statement, but have since been pardoned and released.
Stuck in the middle of the dispute is 12-year-old Amina. She lives in no man’s land, beside a small, dry creek that separates Bangladesh and Myanmar.
She was orphaned by the crisis that began on Aug. 25 last year when militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked 25 police and army posts, killing a dozen security officials. The Myanmar military responded with what it called “clearance operations,” with reports of security forces and Buddhist vigilantes indiscriminately attacking the Rohingya and burning their villages.
“Our house was set on fire,” Amina, who goes by one name, said in an interview on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border as her seven brothers and sisters — all younger than her — played in a shack nearby. “My mother was shot dead, my father was shot dead.”
A relief truck arrived on the road, and hundreds of refugees rushed to receive food — rice, lentils and cooking oil — as the sky darkened further and the wind gathered speed.
“I’m trapped here on no-man’s land, but I can’t go back to my village,” Amina said. “If I go there, I’ll die. They’ll kill me.”