YANGON, MYANMAR - With ever-dwindling space and resources available in overburdened Rohingya refugee camps in southern Bangladesh, the government in Dhaka is boosting family planning measures and considering a voluntary sterilization plan.
The efforts include hiring more staff, distributing birth control pills and handing out condoms, a senior official told VOA.
“We have reorganized our operations in our seven camps meant for Rohingya. [Before] we had only 40 staff and now we have hired 160 others from different places to speed up our activities,” said Pintu Kanti Bhattacharjee, the head of the family planning department in Cox’s Bazar district, where the camps are located just across the border from Myanmar.
“We have distributed 3,000 strips of oral pills and 3,900 women have been given birth control injections in September and October. Only 1,000 condoms have been distributed at the same time. We are providing free of cost. At the same time, our staff is continuing family planning related counseling,” Pintu said.
Hundreds of thousands
More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar since attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in August prompted a brutal crackdown that has revived discussions of targeted U.S. sanctions less than two years into the civilian administration of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Many arrive in camps that have existed for more than two decades, and the surge has put pressure on aid agencies to respond to the growing humanitarian crisis.
It has also strained resources within Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries on earth. Even though the country has welcomed refugees, it insists Myanmar take them back.
The growing concerns over the lack of resources have led to a proposal to introduce voluntary sterilization, which exists as an option for Bangladeshi nationals, into the camps.
The government is considering the idea, which would provide voluntary vasectomies for men and tubectomies for women, but it has not been approved yet.
It’s possible that the various family planning measures could conflict with more conservative cultural and religious beliefs among refugees. Islam does not explicitly forbid birth control but views in the camps are somewhat mixed on the idea.
Religious teacher Aminul Islam said there is nothing wrong with any method if it protects a woman’s health, but that permanent birth control procedures conflict with the faith.
But Hafez Abdul Wahab, 42, who came to Bangladesh 27 years ago and is a registered refugee in the Kutupalang camp, is not as certain.
He and his wife have 10 children and are expecting another. They are open to new options after the next birth.
“The birth control process is difficult so we prefer to go without it. But now I am thinking we will try any process after the last child is born,” he said.
Family planning sensitive topic
Family planning is also a sensitive subject for persecuted Rohingya communities. Buddhist nationalists within Myanmar advocated for a “Population Control” bill that many saw as aimed at the Muslim minority.
The bill, which was passed in 2015 but seems to have not been enforced, requires 36-month spacing between births.
The Rohingya crisis has impacted tens of thousands of children who have had to leave their homes, and some of them showed up in Bangladesh missing one or both parents.
UNICEF says there are 958 unaccompanied children in the camps, 1,968 unaccompanied minors, and 5,009 children who are separated from their parents.
Myanmar says it will take back refugees who fled to Bangladesh under a citizenship verification process, but the process has yet to resume in earnest.
De facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi made her first visit to the conflict-torn area of northern Rakhine State on Thursday in her capacity as the chairperson of the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine Committee, which was set up last month in response to the crisis.
The country has faced mounting criticism from the international community and the United States, where members of Congress have proposed a new round of sanctions, many of which were lifted after Myanmar’s peaceful 2015 election that brought Aung San Suu Kyi to power after decades of military rule.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is expected to visit Myanmar on Nov. 15.