MUMBAI, India – Caritas Bangladesh has been distributing food and other items to Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
The United Nations said on Friday that over 589,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar in the last eight weeks, and tens of thousands more could be on their way.
Over the past two weeks, Caritas Bangladesh have helped nearly 10,000 families currently being housed in refugee camps in the country.
“I met a woman along with her two children, aged 18 months and 5 years, waiting since October 16,” said James Gomes, Regional Director of Caritas Chittagong.
“She along with her mother-in in-law, husband and four children started from their village home 9 days ago. They walked and slept in the jungle, collected food from the jungle, and they were without food for three days while on the Myanmar side of the border,” he told Crux.
“Unfortunately, the rest of her family members could not get in the small boat, except her two daughters,” he said.
Gomes said the woman said she is worried about the rest of her family, and doesn’t know where they are. She is also worried, because she has no money, and had to give all her valuables to the boatman to pay for him to take her and her daughters across the river into Bangladesh.
The Rohingya live mostly in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, which borders Bangladesh, and claim to be native to the area. There was also immigration from the neighboring areas of India, and what is now Bangladesh, during the pre-colonial and colonial era, but most families have been in the area for generations.
Rohingya have faced persecution for decades, and were stripped of their citizenship in 1982. They are officially considered “Bengali interlopers” by the Myanmar government.
After decades of military rule, Myanmar held a historic election, in which Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won a super-majority in the nation’s parliament.
Although the army still controls the country’s security apparatus, there were hopes the election would improve the status for the country’s minorities, including the Rohingya.
Instead, Burmese Buddhist nationalist sentiment was unleashed, which led to conflicts with the Muslim Rohingya.
In November 2016, Myanmar’s army swept through parts of Rakhine State, forcing at least 75,000 people to flee to Bangladesh.
The United Nations accused Myanmar’s security forces of committing crimes against humanity, including gang rapes, torture, arson and extra-judicial killings.
The situation became much worse after the August 25 attack on the police outpost. The military then began what it called “clearance operations,” and Rohingya refugees claim this involved indiscriminate murder and forced removals. In addition, Buddhist mobs have been accused of attacking Rohingya across Rakhine state.
It is now estimated that over half the Rohingya population has since fled Myanmar for Bangladesh.
They join the over 500,000 Rohingya who had previously fled Myanmar for Bangladesh over the past three decades, who have been kept in camps in Cox’s Bazar District, near the border.
In September, the Archbishop of Dhaka, Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario, visited the camps to assess the situation to “prepare the way” for Caritas’s humanitarian mission.
“After the shock of seeing the conditions of the refugees, things in the camps seem to be getting organized, but there is so much to do,” D’Rozario told Crux.
Caritas Bangladesh has been doing what it can to help, but there are only about 350,000 Catholics in the country, about 0.2 percent of the total population.
Despite their small numbers, the assistance is appreciated.
“While others have given food, Caritas had also provided very useful cooking items which are able to meet very particular and urgent needs for my family’s life,” Sharif Mian said.
The 54-year-old Rohingya farmer is the head of an eight-member family living in the Cox’s Bazar camp.
Although currently most concerned with providing food, cooking utensils, and other essentials, Caritas is making plans with the government to help provide permanent housing structures as well as medical and educational facilities.
Pope Francis is expected to land into the middle of this human rights catastrophe in about 6 weeks, when he visits Myanmar from November 27-30, and Bangladesh from November 30-December 2.
Francis has been an advocate for the Rohingya, making his latest appeal for them during his Angelus on August 27, when he urged for them to be given “full rights.”
Francis has consistently spoken about the Rohingya during interviews, his daily morning Masses, Angelus addresses and his Wednesday general audiences.
On February 8, the pontiff asked the pilgrims gathered for his general audience to pray with him “for our brother and sister Rohingya.”
Despite his strong advocacy for the Rohingya, according to the official schedule of the two-nation trip released by the Vatican on October 10, Francis is not expected to tour the refugee camps during his visit.