Fresh fears for newborn babies as Rohingyas’ plight worsens

Aid agencies in camps are overwhelmed as family tragedies unfold on Myanmar’s border

More than 400 babies have been born in the no man’s land between the borders of Bangladesh and Myanmar in the past 15 days as 400,000 Rohingya people have fled from the violence, house burnings and gunfire in Rakhine state.

The Rohingya are trapped. Myanmar’s military has blamed insurgents for the latest round of violence. The UN has called the situation a “humanitarian disaster” and aid agencies are overwhelmed. About 80% of those fleeing are women and children – and there are babies being born along the way.

Caught between two countries – and welcome by neither – Suraiya Sultan, 25, is one of those new mothers. She was waiting in a 500-yard-long strip of mud when she went into labour. As her contractions increased, Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) took her on to a boat, where she gave birth to her daughter, Ayesha, under a makeshift sari canopy. Sick and exhausted, mother and baby were taken to the Nayapara camp to seek medical assistance. Camp officer Mohd Mominul Haq said they had received many others in a similar position and that their condition was “critical”.

“We are trying our best to help them, but the situation is beyond our capacity,” he said. Mothers have died during childbirth; others gave birth only to watch helplessly as their newborns died from sickness and poor camp conditions.

Masum Bhadur, 28, lost her son. “He had a fever and wouldn’t stop shaking,” she sobbed. Her husband Abu Bakr, 35, went to find help, but when he returned the baby was dead. There is no proper burial ground in the vicinity, as all available space is being used to erect make-shift shelters, so Abu Bakr dug a small grave in the forest nearby and buried their son. He was three days old.

Another woman did not know what to do with her dead baby. After carrying her boy with her for two days, she slipped him into the Naf river. Tears streamed down her face as she told her story. Manzur Kadir Ahmed, chief executive of Gonoshasthaya Kendra (People’s Health Centre), said that the mothers were unable to breastfeed their babies because of a lack of enough food and water.

Vivian Tan, from the UN refugee agency UNHCR, described how a man approached the clinic at the Nayapara camp looking distressed. “He took us to this little basket covered by a blanket ... he opened it and showed us two tiny babies. His wife had just given birth to twins while they were on the run,” she said. One died soon afterwards.

Anthony Lake, executive director of the UN children’s agency Unicef, said: “Women and children on both sides of the border need urgent help and protection.” While Unicef is scaling up its response in Bangladesh, Myanmar has blocked all aid-worker access to civilians in northern Rakhine, including babies and pregnant women.

As the situation on the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh worsens, the global criticism directed at Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, over her silence about the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority, who are mainly Muslim, is mounting. In the UK, there are growing calls for awards and honours bestowed on her by a range of universities and cities to be withdrawn. In the City of London – where Aung San Suu Kyi was endowed with the honorary freedom of the City as recently as May this year – questions are also being asked about how and why she was honoured after local government members and others expressed their concerns.

The role of the Foreign Office, which was consulted by City of London officials, is also now in the spotlight, and at least one elected member of the Square Mile’s local authority has now initiated discussions with colleagues on whether her honour could be withdrawn.

“The City remains a fantastically diverse place, with a huge number of south Asian Muslims living and working here. This makes it all the more important that we hold ourselves to the highest possible standard on this issue,” said the letter from Thomas Anderson, which has been seen by the Observer.

There are also calls for Aung San Suu Kyi, having already faced criticism over her stance by her fellow Nobel laureates Malala Yousafzai and Desmond Tutu, to be stripped of her honorary Canadian citizenship and the Nobel Peace Prize that she was given in 1991.

Thousands of Rohingya refugees are stuck in no man’s land between Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Thousands of Rohingya refugees are stuck in no man’s land between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Photograph: Allison Joyce/Getty Images

In Dublin, where she received the freedom of the city in 2012, councillors have started to debate whether to begin the process of taking back that award, with one, Mannix Flynn, warning colleagues that they could have “blood on their hands”.

Disappointment at Aung San Suu Kyi’s stance on the violence is keenly felt in Oxford, her former home. A campaign is under way there calling for withdrawal of the honorary doctorate bestowed on her in 2012, when she visited after being released from 15 years under house arrest in her own country.

“Suu Kyi has been widely admired in Oxford, to which she has a close personal connection, for her courageous stance on human rights in Burma, for her persistence against the odds and for remaining stubbornly peaceful in the face of military aggression,” said Dr Hazel Dawe, an academic at Oxford Brookes University and originator of a petition directed towards Oxford University. “There is widespread disillusionment and disappointment that she appears unable to apply those same admirable qualities to the crisis facing the Rohingya people.”

Elsewhere, the leader of Sheffield council has accused Aung San Suu Kyi of a “betrayal” of the city’s support, while councillors are to debate whether to withdraw the freedom honour bestowed on her.

In Liverpool, the city’s guild of students has already removed her name from a room at the main university’s student union and called it after Kitty Wilkinson, the woman who prevented the spread of the 1832 cholera epidemic.

Ananda Mohan, deputy president of the guild, said that the organisation was responding to the volume of student support for the room to be renamed.


Thaslima Begum, Ben Quinn and Millie Shields

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