Hunger and malnutrition are once again looming for the more than one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh after the World Food Programme (WFP) cut food rations for the second time this year.
Stating fund shortages of $56 million, the WFP last week slashed its monthly food rations from $10 a person to $8, which amounts to less than nine cents per meal.
The refugees were earlier this year receiving food aid of $12, which was reduced to $10 in March. The agency said this would have “dire consequences not only on nutrition for women and children but also protection, safety and security for everyone in the camps”.
'We will have to starve'
The refugees said the second cut in food ration would push the Rohingya into starvation.
Arismin Ara, 34, a mother of five children, told The National she was struggling to provide her children with two meals a day.
“Even before the ration cut, my children were eating only twice a day," she said from Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh. "So, you can imagine what the new cut will mean to my family. We will have to starve.
“I was borrowing 10 kilos of rice from neighbours every month. Rice is the only food my children were able to eat. That is why this ration cut will hit us hard.”
Hamida Katu, 45, another Rohingya woman in the Kutupalong camp, said she and her husband were toiling to feed their four children.
“As a mother, I cannot see my children starve. The food coupons were hardly enough for us. Now, how will I feed my kids?” asked Katu.
“My husband is a tuberculosis patient and I have hypertension. We do not have any jobs in the camp. We had hopes that the world will not let us starve and die. But that is also dying now.”
Considered the most persecuted minority in the world, the mostly Muslim Rohingya fled Myanmar in 2017 to escape genocide perpetuated by the military.
They live in squalid, overcrowded camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar and are entirely dependent on aid. They receive food rations in the form of coupons from the WFP, and food is collected from outlets within the camp. The Bangladeshi government does not allow refugees to work or move outside the camps, denying the refugees any means of livelihood.
Devastating impact on families
Htway Lwin, a Rohingya community leader in Cox’s Bazar, told The National the ration cut would have a "devastating impact" on families.
“Our plight is reaching a critical stage now," he said. "Most parents are forced to make a heart-wrenching decision of giving up their meals to feed their children. Instead of eating three meals a day, they are having two or even just one."
Beyond mere hunger, Mr Lwin said the ration cut would also push many Rohingya into criminal activities such as smuggling or theft to support their families.
He added: “We are at a higher risk of malnutrition and stunted growth and disease. Abductions and kidnappings will increase in the camps now. People will be desperate to take dangerous sea crossings to Thailand or Malaysia.”
Experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to observe the situation in the camps said before the first round of rations cuts that health indicators for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh were grim.
Forty-five per cent of Rohingya families were not eating a sufficient diet. Forty per cent of Rohingya children experienced stunted growth and more than half suffered from anaemia, they said.
“Member states must urgently act to close the $56 million funding shortfall for food rations that has led to these cuts,” said the experts.
“The failure to provide Rohingya families in Bangladesh with sustainable levels of food is a stain on the conscience of the international community. They are in Bangladesh not by choice, but because of genocidal attacks by the Myanmar military."
Forced to go back to Myanmar
Ro Nay San Lwin, founder of advocacy group Free Rohingya Coalition, told The National the reduction in ration coincided with the Myanmar junta’s attempts to repatriate some refugees due to increasing pressure from the Chinese government.
“This ration cut directly encourages the refugees to participate in the repatriation to the dangerous areas [in Myanmar[ known as the killing fields. With an incentive of US$2,000 being offered to potential returnees, this ration cut is compelling the refugees to accept the incentive and return to the concentration camps in Myanmar.
“The recent actions by WFP have intensified the pressure on the refugees. They are now faced with the difficult choice of either starving here or returning to the concentration camps in Myanmar.”
Myanmar has registered more than1000 Rohingya in the first batch of the controversial pilot repatriation project, despite reservations expressed by humanitarian agencies that conditions in Myanmar are not conducive for their safe return.