Births, marriages and deaths: Rohingya lives playing out as refugees

COX’s BAZAR, Aug 21: A newborn yet be named squirms in a mother’s arms; a marriage party lights up a fetid lane; a dead man’s face makes a soft impression on the blanket covering him — with no route home Rohingya lives are playing out in the refugee camps of Bangladesh.

Chased from Myanmar in waves reaching back to the late 1970s, a million of the stateless Rohingya are cornered in one of the most densely populated areas on Earth.

Most are unable to work legally, move freely or access full education — existences pared back to the basics of survival.

The camps of Cox’s Bazar district buzz with children, typically curious and mischievous, but many also underfed, with few clothes, less schooling and nothing but homemade toys for entertainment.

Expectations of marrying early, having a family and dying a refugee are realities, with faith and tradition providing rare constants for a minority without a state.

“One day I want my daughter to see Myanmar,” says 20-year-old Setara of a tiny eight-day-old child born in a bamboo shack in the Thangkhali refugee camp where the family arrived last year.

“But I won’t go back unless everyone else does.” Throughout her pregnancy, Setara did not seek help from the NGO-run health centres. Instead like most Rohingya women, she relied on a traditional midwife — known to Rohingya as “diama” — for the delivery.

Five thousand babies will be born over the next few months across the new refugee camps, according to the United Nations Population Fund, which delivers 300 babies each month in its facilities alone.

The birth rate has kept the diama busy.

“Sometimes I have gloves, but if there are none available I will do the delivery with my bare hands,” says 60-year-old Majuna Begum.

She has delivered 22 babies in nine months at the camp without charge. Pregnant women are expected to provide the diama with a basic delivery kit — fresh cloths, scissors, a needle and a tub with clean water. But there is no pain relief or antibiotics.

She insists that she will not assist with births “if there are complications”.

But plenty of others do, say health workers.

Ten percent of births involve complications and without full medical care the risks of infection and injury to the mother or asphyxiation of the newborn are high.

The birth rate among the new refugee community is potentially dangerous for women and unsustainable for the camps, given the extreme resource squeeze on an already poor wedge of Bangladesh.

But contraception remains taboo among Rohingya men. (AGENCIES)