‘People are going hungry and children are becoming malnourished.’
This month marks six years since the beginning of the Rohingya genocide, when – along with more than one million others – I was forced to flee my home by Myanmar’s security forces and take refuge across the border in Bangladesh.
To eat in the overcrowded camps, we have had to rely almost exclusively on ration vouchers from the UN’s World Food Programme. Facing a funding crisis, WFP cut the value of our food vouchers by 30% earlier this year, to just $8 per month – the cost of a single cup of coffee in some countries.
Imagine if your boss cut your salary overnight by 30%. Imagine the stress that would put on you and your family.
When my family arrived here in Bangladesh in August 2017, we were taken care of by numerous local and international aid agencies. Most of our daily needs were met. But as the years have passed, humanitarian agencies have started to leave the camps, and restrictions have been placed on our ability to eat, move, and work. Aid agencies say the reason assistance has been reduced is that donor governments have cut their budgets.
We understand the world has many urgent problems. But this is the wrong time to abandon Rohingya refugees. Even though we are only a few miles from our villages in Myanmar, we are sadly no closer to going home today than when we were chased from our land in the summer of 2017. While we are grateful for Bangladesh’s hospitality, we also see the world is forgetting about us.
‘We don’t have any money for food for our children’
It’s hard to overstate just how seriously the WFP ration cuts affect our community. The lack of food, combined with cramped conditions, poor shelter, inadequate education, and increasing violence in the camps, are stretching the resilience of my Rohingya community to the breaking point.
What makes this worse is that Rohingya in the camps have very few job opportunities. Without the ability to work, we can’t earn extra money to feed our growing families and fend for ourselves when WFP cuts our rations. Now, people are going hungry and children are becoming malnourished.
Every day, I see Rohingya families losing hope. Many are paying people smugglers to take their young children on dangerous journeys to Malaysia in the hope they may secure something that can be called a future. We do this knowing many never make it, but we feel like there is no other choice.
For Rohingya who can’t afford smugglers, like my friend Muhammad Kawliw, the future is terrifying. Muhammad is a longtime volunteer with an international NGO here in the camps. He says the cuts to food rations will force many refugees into illegal activities and believes there’ll be “an explosion of child labour”. He also expects criminal gangs operating in the camps to lure innocent people, including children, into dangerous activities – like kidnapping and theft – just to make a few dollars to eat.
Zomilah Begum, a 27-year-old mother, told me that she and her three children are suffering from malnutrition. “I am worrying constantly for my family because of the ration shortages. My children don’t have enough to eat. They used to have several meals a day, but now they don’t,” Zomilah said.
“If WFP’s food rations keep getting smaller, we will have even more difficulties growing up, concentrating, and studying.”
“Every day, they get weaker. I can’t stand it. We don’t have any money for food for our children after our rations run out because we don’t have jobs. We depend on WFP rations but they are getting smaller,” she added.
Similarly, Kotiza Begum, a 35-year-old mother of six, told me she tries to breastfeed her baby a dozen times a day, but her baby is abnormally underweight for her age. Kotiza worries she is not producing enough milk because she doesn’t have enough to eat due to the ration cuts.
The cuts are also affecting our mental health. Lal Muhammed, 40, told me he is depressed and can’t sleep at night because he is constantly worrying about how he will feed his pregnant wife, small children, and elderly parents. He has 10 people in his family, but the rations they receive for the whole month run out in three weeks, even when they are eating the bare minimum they need to to survive. Lal said he occasionally has to beg and borrow for food money. If he was allowed to work, he said he could earn enough money to feed his family, but that is sadly not the case.
“It is very hard for girls like me to get the nutrients we need at our age because we simply don’t have enough meals,” Ismat Ara, a 14-year-old student, told me. “Life in the camps is full of pressure; it’s already very hard for children to go to school and learn. If [WFP’s] food rations keep getting smaller, we will have even more difficulties growing up, concentrating, and studying.”
It is arguably widows and the elderly who are suffering the most from the ration cuts. Many of these vulnerable people live alone and don’t have any income or spare money. One widow I recently met, Nurjan, has four children and not enough to eat. She goes without food so her children can eat. But Nurjan is worried she may not survive to see her children grow up.
Another person I spoke to, also named Zomilah Begum, is a 60-year-old woman. She lives with her older husband who is deaf. They are my neighbours, and I see her having to beg for food to make ends meet because they don’t have an income or children they can rely on.
‘Keep my family and community from starving’
The problem isn’t just the amount of food we receive from WFP, but also its poor quality.
It isn’t uncommon for refugees to receive rotting food that is unusable or makes us sick. I have seen many times how Rohingya families are given old chilies and eggs, rotting vegetables, or fish that have gone bad. Families hesitate to ask to replace these old items with fresher food. They are afraid that their next month’s rations will be smaller if they speak up. It is something that happens all too often.
Despite everything, I still see hope.
“If we could, we would be back on our land in Myanmar farming and growing our own food like we have for centuries. But we can’t right now, so we need the international community’s help to protect our most basic human right – the right to life.”
My friend Hasina Begum, for example, has eight people in her family who she struggles to feed on WFP rations. Her young children are in school, and her husband is sick and often can’t work. To feed her family, Hasina breeds chickens and other birds around her small shelter and sells them in the market. When she can, she also helps her elderly neighbours. “It’s the only way I can keep my family and community from starving,” she told me.
Like Hasina, there are many strong women who are dedicated to supporting their family and neighbours. There are many other Rohingya working informally – often in dangerous and unreliable jobs – to make ends meet when international support falls short. But these small jobs and projects are far from enough to allow us to thrive, let alone survive.
Every day, I hear refugees saying we are being forgotten by the international community; that the donors and aid agencies don’t care anymore; that we have become a burden for them. This breaks my heart.
The Rohingya are a proud people with a rich culture. We didn’t choose this life. If we could, we would be back on our land in Myanmar farming and growing our own food like we have for centuries. But we can’t right now, so we need the international community’s help to protect our most basic human right – the right to life. That right encompasses more than just freedom from violence – it also includes access to adequate amounts of the safe and healthy food that we need to live.
Originally published in The New Humanitarian on 28.08.2023