Sexual predators, human traffickers target Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh
Organised criminal gangs and sexual predators are scouring the Rohingya refugee camps on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border looking for orphans, promising dubious jobs and exploiting women for so-called "survival sex", according to aid groups.
Since August, an estimated 580,000 Rohingya Muslims have crossed into Bangladesh, fleeing a scorched earth campaign by the Myanmar security forces and local vigilantes.
But now even the refugee camps that offered some safety are attracting criminals.
"We've heard stories of people coming in and offering people, looking for orphans and saying, 'We'll take you to a safe place'," Zia Choudhury, Bangladesh country director for the humanitarian group CARE, said.
"[They're] offering people jobs to go and work as cleaners or maids, and we know that those are organised gangs who are going to whisk these vulnerable people away and take them to some worse situation.
"We also know that men are turning up and offering cash to people who are so hungry, so thirsty, they need help, they need money, they're offering cash for sex."
The Bangladesh Government and aid agencies are doing all they can to keep these predators out of the camps and protect vulnerable people, Mr Choudhury said.
Despite the emerging risk, the camps still represent relative safety for thousands of new arrivals every day.
Many Rohingya women and children arrived in Bangladesh with stories of being sexually assaulted in Myanmar — either in their village or as they walked to the border.
"Rape, human trafficking, and survival sex have been reported among the existing perils for women and girls during flight," Robert Watkins, the United Nations resident coordinator in Bangladesh, said.
A humanitarian response plan prepared by the UN this month estimated 448,000 people in the refugee camps need assistance because of gender-based violence.
That includes rape, other sexual assaults and trauma from witnessing attacks.
Women and children are most at risk in Bangladesh's refugee camps. (Supplied: UNICEF, file)
More than half of those needing assistance are under 18, according to the UN.
"I met a young woman who was about 30, her name was Amna, and she'd come with her daughter and her son — she'd lost her husband in Myanmar," Mr Choudhury said.
Amna told him that armed men in Myanmar raped her as the family fled towards the border camps.
"Her son had tried to stop [them]…he's like seven or eight, [but] they basically hit him so hard that he fainted, collapsed," Mr Choudhury said.
"They took the 10-year-old girl away, several men, and then they assaulted her and then they just left her there for dead.
"Amna told me that she got to her daughter, who was completely physically, you know, in a terrible state, and then carried her for miles until they got to the Bangladesh border and then they crossed over."
Now the girl is mute and won't allow medical or psychological help.
"That story really shook me up, the thought of this 10-year-old being brutalised and then having to be carried over by her mum," Mr Choudhury said.
Rape as a weapon of war
The Myanmar army is notorious for using rape as a weapon of war.
"What is happening in Rakhine today is not new…the same thing happened in [the] eastern border, like Shan State," Shan human rights activist Charm Tong said.
"[Rape] is used to traumatise, demoralise and also to control…the local communities."
Rohingya refugees are relying on help from aid groups to help them survive. (AP: Dar Yasin)
She was involved in a report titled License to Rape, which found more than 173 cases of soldiers raping women in Shan State, mostly between 1996 and 2001.
The report said the rape was often perpetrated by senior officers in full view of his men and argued that sexual assault "is officially condoned as a 'weapon of war' against the civilian populations".
Ms Tong told the ABC that not a single soldier was prosecuted for those attacks and now some of the most infamous units — like Battalion 33 and Battalion 99 — have been sent to Rakhine State.
The military has denied the allegations of rape, as well as claims of mass killings and the now-well documented systematic burning of Muslim villages.
The security forces said they were conducting a counter-terrorist operation, after a coordinated attack by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on August 25.
Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has condemned any human rights abuses — without mentioning the security forces — but has also blocked independent UN investigators.
Sticks and plastic create safe spaces
Mr Choudhury said Rohingya women have shown incredible resilience.
"One of the things that has really struck me is how quickly women who have been through absolute horrors, unimaginable horrors…so quickly manage to get organised," he said.
"They have built their own shelters, they've used what little money they have to buy plastic and sticks and they've created a little, a tiny little safe space for themselves and their families."
Space, like almost everything at the camps, is in short supply.
The recent exodus of people joined the 300,000 Rohingyas who were already camped across the border, having fled from previous violence.
Amidst the chaos and urgent needs of survival, aid groups have established some facilities to help survivors of sexual assault.
"We managed to set up safe spaces where women can come to speak to a medical professional, to receive treatment if they so wish and also to meet trained counsellors," Mr Choudhury said.
But the need is far greater than what can currently be provided.
"The sheer number of people that came over — half a million in just over a month — is unprecedented in the world for many decades now," he said.
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