As thousands of Rohingya refugees struggle to get by on one meal a day at camps in southeastern Bangladesh, others are making money by illicitly selling off their food rations, officials acknowledged.
Rasheda Begum, a Rohingya woman who lives in the Jamtoli camp in Ukhia, a sub-district of Cox’s Bazar, said she was selling surplus rations that her family of five received every fortnight to buy meat and vegetables even though Bangladesh authorities were cracking down on such sales.
“We are just five of us in my family, including three kids. What will we do with such large quantities of rations?” Rasheda, 27, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
Recently, she said, she tried to sell seven liters (1.84 gallons) of cooking oil for nearly half the market price, while a next-door neighbor was selling 50 kilos (110 pounds) of rice for 25 taka (U.S. 30 cents) per kilogram.
Rohingya families, no matter their size, receive the same ration of rice, lentils and vegetable oil every two weeks from the World Food Program (WFP).
Meanwhile at the sprawling Kutupalong refugee camp, about 20 km (12.5 miles) away, Mohammad Javed, 18, said his 11-member family was struggling against hunger. At times, they eat barely one meal a day, he said.
“The ration is not enough. But we’re managing somehow. We eat less so supplies can last us two weeks,” he told BenarNews.
Officials conceded that the widespread sale of rations in the 15-odd refugee camps on Bangladesh’s southeastern border stemmed from a flaw in the food distribution system.
“Each Rohingya family gets the same amount of ration regardless of how many members it contains,” Cox’s Bazar Deputy Commissioner Ali Hossain told BenarNews. About 350 tons of food is distributed in Rohingya camps daily.
“There may be something wrong with this system. But you need to understand that when the crisis unfolded in August, thousands of Rohingya poured into Bangladesh. We did not have enough time and resources to gather information on the number of members in each family,” he said. “So we calculated a rough average of members per family and started distributing relief.”
A violent crackdown by security forces in Buddhist-majority Myanmar against the Rohingya Muslim community has driven more than 600,000 refugees across the border into Bangladesh since Aug. 25. The offensive followed coordinated attacks on Myanmar police and army posts that were blamed on Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents.
Tens of thousands of children at risk
Almost 40,000 Rohingya children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years living in the refugee camps suffer from acute malnutrition and urgently need life-saving measures, according to a survey conducted by the U.S.-based International Rescue Committee (IRC).
“The IRC additionally expects malnutrition rates to be even higher as the humanitarian community comes to grips with the full scale of need,” it said. IRC expects 200,000 more new arrivals in the coming weeks will further exacerbate the humanitarian crisis.
The World Food Program, which has distributed almost 9,540 metric tons (10,516 U.S. tons) of rice in the refugee camps since Aug. 25, said the ration distribution amount was based on an average family size of five.
“We conduct fortnightly distributions of 25 kg rice, 4.5 kg lentils and two liters of vegetable oil per household,” WFP spokeswoman Shelley Thakral told BenarNews.
She said the WFP was aware that some families were selling supplies distributed by her agency.
“In a situation like this one, where refugees have lost everything and are struggling to meet all of their basic needs, it can sometimes happen that people choose to sell food rations in order to buy other urgent items, such as medicine or shelter supplies,” Thakral said.
“While this is not our intention, once the food has been given to the people for whom it was intended, it is their decision what to do with it.”
Bangladeshi authorities consider the sale and purchase of relief rations a criminal offense, Deputy Commissioner Hossain said.
The Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) last month detained at least 25 Rohingya who were caught selling relief supplies, he said, adding they were released with a warning.
“We are trying to convince them that the aid they are getting was dwindling with each passing day and in about two months they will not get any. So they should keep a reserve supply instead of selling it,” Hossain said.
Earlier this week, the BGB arrested 10 Bangladeshis from the Kutupalong camp for attempting to purchase rations from refugees, he said.
“They were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 1 month to 6 months,” he added.
But the arrests don’t concern Abul Hossain, 48, a grocery store owner in Cox’s Bazar town.
He said he regularly purchased rice, lentils, sugar and oil from Rohingya refugees because it was a “highly profitable bargain.”
“I am not forcing them to sell their ration supply. They’re selling it of their own free will. There’s no victim here, so how can it be a crime?” he told BenarNews.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.