Midway between the resort town of Cox’s Bazaar and Teknaf in southeastern Bangladesh lies Shamalapur. Near the picturesque shores of the Bay of Bengal there are roughly 25,000 unregistered Rohingya refugees from Rakhine State, Myanmar living in a forest with no aid from the outside world. A small portion of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya living in Bangladesh are registered and living in one of two official camps, Nayapara or Kutupalong. A larger percentage of Rohingya are living in makeshift camps like Shamalapur. Some have lived here for decades. Some came after outbreaks of violence in Myanmar left their homes and businesses destroyed in 2012. Some have gone back and forth between the two countries for 30 years as the persecution Rohingya face in Myanmar ebbs and flows. Many of the children were born here and know nowhere else.
In Rakhine State, Rohingya face endless persecution based on their Muslim faith and physical similarities to their close neighbors in Bangladesh. Despite having lived in Rakhine State for centuries the Rohingya are thought of by many in Myanmar as Muslim invaders from Bangladesh. In 1982, Rohingya were not included as one of the indigenous races under The Burmese Citizenship Act. This rendered them stateless and essentially with no basic human rights. For decades they have been victims of restricted movement, land confiscation, forced labor, torture, false imprisonement, arson and murder. In hopes of gaining some level of freedom in the country of their Muslim neighbors, Rohingya continue to cross the Naf River and try their fate in Bangladesh.
Shamalapur is an incredibly beautiful natural setting. Traditional Bengali fishing boats line a long stretch of white sand beach where many Rohingya men and boys work on fishing boats for meager pay. During the slow fishing season when their is little work, families are forced to borrow money from Bengali boat owners as their is little to no alternative for work in the area. As the high season comes back around, much of the money made fishing on the Bay of Bengal for several days at a time goes to pay off their debt. With the lack of income, no aid and the fact that they are unregistered and stateless, thousands of predominantly male Rohingya will leave on boats heading toward Malaysia or Thailand. The hope of making money to send back to their families in Bangladesh and Myanmar is born out of necessity. As a last resort, Rohingya secretly board boats and risk their lives at sea in the hands of human traffickers who will no doubt extort their families for more money along the way. Those who can not fulfill the demands of the traffickers will be beaten and kept imprisoned until the money arrives. If it doesn’t come, many times they will be sold to Thai fishing boats, forced to work off their debts living at sea for months at a time. Many of those searching for an inkling of freedom in Malaysia or Thailand simply don’t survive the journey.