Only two miles separate Burma, or Myanmar, from Bangladesh’s Shahporir Island, where the river Naf flows into the Bay of Bengal. Two miles of water that represent, for Rohingya refugees, the last rampart before relative safety.
For three weeks now, thousands of them have made the crossing, fleeing the Burmese military’s “clearance operation,” launched last month after Rohingya militants attacked police outposts in Burma’s Rakhine state.
Bangladeshi photographer Ismail Ferdous was on the shore of Shahporir Island when he witnessed chaotic scenes of desperation as refugees tried to board the boats that would lead them farther inland in Bangladesh. “Many of them didn’t have money, so they were only relying on their luck,” Ferdous said. “So each time these wooden boats came, they desperately tried to get on,” hoping that someone would pay for them or let them board for free.
Many of these refugees end up in humanitarian camps set up in Teknaf or Cox’s Bazar, in the southernmost part of Bangladesh. Ferdous has become familiar with these camps, photographing them several times over the past few weeks. Yet he was still surprised by the scale of this exodus.
“I was in complete shock,” he said. “Coming back to the same Rohingya camps just a few weeks later, it felt like coming to a different universe. There used to be only two camps. Now there are hundreds of small camps.”
Bangladesh hasn’t always been welcoming toward Rohingya refugees, but Burma’s neighbor couldn’t ignore this crisis, Ferdous said. “I think this is a really significant event in the history of Bangladesh. This is the highest number of refugees they’ve ever accepted.”
The International Refugee Organization predicts that 500,000 Rohingya will eventually find refuge in Bangladesh. The crisis has just started.
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