What life is like on the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh, where a UN-labeled ‘genocide’ has left 1 million refugees living in limbo

A Myanmar security personnel keeps watch along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border as Rohingya refugee sit outside their shelters.

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A Myanmar security personnel keeps watch along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border as Rohingya refugee sit outside their shelters.
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Munir Uz Zaman / AFP / Getty
  • Myanmar and Bangladesh are divided by the Naf River.
  • Below the river, Rakhine State in Myanmar has been a place of conflict for decades. The Rohingya people, who lived there, have not been recognized as citizens since 1982.
  • This is what life on the border looks like on the ground.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Dividing Myanmar and Bangladesh is the Naf river. At times, it’s 2 miles wide.

Below the Naf river, the Rakhine State in Myanmar has been a place of conflict for decades. The Rohingya people, who lived there, have not recognized as citizens since 1982.

In August 2017, Rohingya militants killed 12 Myanmar police officers, and Myanmar’s military responded on a massive scale. A 2018 United Nations report accused the military of genocide, including murder, imprisonment, torture, and rape.

Fearing for their safety, hundreds of thousands fled into Bangladesh, primarily by crossing the river.

Here’s what the divide between the two countries look like on the ground.


The Naf River, seen here in red, marks the boundary between Bangladesh and Myanmar. It’s between one and two miles wide, and has a maximum depth of 400 feet.

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Border between Myanmar and Bangladesh.
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Google Maps / Business Insider

Source: Banglapedia


At the border’s southern tip is the Rakhine State, where much of the strife has occurred.

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The Rakhine State.
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Google Maps / Businss Insider

The Rohingya are a group of Muslims who primarily lived in Rakhine State, and numbered around 1 million in 2017. The name “Rohingya” surfaced in the 1950s, to provide them with a collective identity.

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A Rohingya refugee and mother of eight.
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Cathal McNaughton / Reuters

Source: BBC News


Muslims have been in Myanmar since the 15th century, but during British rule, the population tripled, after Muslims emigrated from Bengal to work. After British rule ended, the Myanmar government considered them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. And in 1982, the government passed a law that effectively denies citizenship to the Rohingya, making them stateless.

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Burmese Rohingya Association members protesting as part of World Refugee Rally in Brisbane, Australia.
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Shutterstock

Sources: National Geographic, Human Rights Watch


One of the key routes refugees took to get into Bangladesh from Myanmar was over the Naf River. Seen here is a group crossing the river in 1992.

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A boat carrying Rohingya people crossing Naf River to flee from Myanmar in 1992 in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh
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The Asahi Shimbun / Getty

Sources: Reuters, Amnesty International


Roads that fleeing refugees have used near the river, like this one seen in 2018, are disintegrating after so much heavy use.

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A disintegrating road near Bangladesh’s border with Myanmar.
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Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP / Getty

Myanmar’s military have killed Rohingya people, destroyed their property, separated communities, imposed curfews, and enforced placement in camps.

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A 21-year-old Rohingya refugee Mohamed Jabair poses to show burns on his bodies, which he said he sustained when his house was set on fire in Myanmar, at Kutupalang refugee camp, near Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.
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Jorge Silva / Reuters

Sources: UNHRC, CFR, Amnesty International, National Geographic, Reuters


Since August 2017, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar, pouring into Bangladesh.

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Hundreds of Rohingya people crossing Bangladesh’s border as they flee from Buchidong at Myanmar after crossing the Naf River in Bangladesh.
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K M Asad / LightRocket / Getty

Source: Aljazeera


A fence also runs along the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

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Myanmar border fences are seen from Ghumdhum near Naikhongchhari in Bangladesh’s Bandarban district on November 12, 2018,
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Sam Jahan / AFP / Getty

Parts of it are guarded, but refugees have still gotten through.

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A Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) personnel stands alert in a bunker as Rohingya people escape fresh gunfire at the Bangladesh-Myanmar frontier near Rakhine
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Sam Jahan / AFP / Getty

Bangladesh’s military has also been stationed on islands in the Bay of Bengal to stop the flow of refugees. Seen here are paramilitary on their way to St. Martins Island.

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Border Guards Bangladesh paramilitary carrying assault rifles queue to board a ship.
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STR / AFP / Getty

In May 2018, there were over 900,000 refugees in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.

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Rohingya refugee children look on at Balikhali camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, November 14, 2018.
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Mohammad Ponir Hossain / Reuters

Source: UN News


The city is right above the border of the two countries.

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Cox’s Bazar.
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Google Maps / Business Insider

Cox’s Bazar’s camp has the most Rohingya refugees in the world. Seen here, it continues on into the distance.

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A views of worlds largest Rohingya refugee camp in Ukhiya, Coxs Bazar, Bangladesh on August 2, 2018.
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Rehman Asad / Nurphoto / Getty

Sources: NPR, UN


Bangladesh’s government says it’s temporary, and bans building permanent homes, so shelters are made from a mixture of plastic and bamboo.

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Rohingya refugees carry wood in Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar.
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Allison Joyce / Getty

Source: NPR


Yet despite the Bangladesh government’s intentions, the camps are slowly becoming more permanent. Bamboo bridges, like this one, have been built over waterways.

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Women walk across a bamboo bridge in the Kutupalong camp for Rohingya refugees in southern Bangladesh, February 11, 2018.
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Andrew RC Marshall / Reuters

In the camps, life carries on as best it can. People play soccer.

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Rohingya refugees play football at Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh.
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Clodagh Kilcoyne / Reuters

Religious classes are held in small groups. But official schools aren’t allowed, because the Bangladesh government doesn’t want kids getting used to the conditions, NPR reported.

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A woman teaches the Koran in a refugee camp.
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Allison Joyce / Getty

Source: NPR


Refugees clean their clothes in water holes.

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A Rohingya refugee washes her clothes in a water hole.
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Allison Joyce / Getty

Makeshift toilets have been erected, although they are clearly not built to last forever. The infrastructure of the 5-square-mile camp is stretched due to the number of refugees.

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A makeshift toilet in the Falungkhali Rohingya refugee camp on September 19, 2017 in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh
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Allison Joyce / Getty

Source: UNHCR


The Rohingya refugees do their best to cook hot meals.

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A Rohingya mother from the IDP refugee camps of Sittwe carries her baby whilst she cooks dinner.
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Jonas Gratzer / LightRocket / Getty

In the evening, a haze forms over the camp from cooking fires.

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Smoke rises from shelter as Rohingya refugee cook their dinner at Unchiparang refugee camp, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh January 11, 2018.
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Tyrone Siu / Reuters

But getting firewood is not easy. In Cox’s Bazar, refugees cut down trees to build shelters or to fuel fires, but without the foliage, landslides have plagued the camps.

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As the Rohingya families live inside tents on hills, landslides are damaging property and hurting refugees as they collapse during heavy rains or storms.
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Masfiqur Sohan / NurPhoto / Getty

Source: BBC


But refugees have banded together to reinforce the hills against landslides.

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Rohingya refugees construct reinforcements to prevent landslides ahead of the monsoon season at a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh
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Mohammmad Ponir Hossain / Reuters

And aid groups have given out gas stoves so hot meals can continue without firewood.

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A Rohingya refugee man carries a Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) cylinder.
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Mohammad Ponir Hossain / Reuters

Source: NPR


There is also limited medical aid in the camps, and most refugees from Myanmar were never vaccinated. The most common conditions affect refugee’s respiratory systems, the skin, and the bowels.

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A young refugee has her mouth checked.
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Allison Joyce / Getty

Source: Doctors Without Borders


By April 2018, nearly 100,000 people had been treated for malnutrition. Aid groups estimate that 20% of the children in the refugee camps are malnourished.

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Md Rasel, a 18 month-old Rohingya refugee child suffering from malnutrition.
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Tyrone Siu / Reuters

Sources: BBC News, VOA


The Bangladesh government wants the Rohingya refugees to return to Myanmar, and at least one transit camp is ready for refugees. But very few have returned.

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Hla Phoe Khaung transit camp for returning Rohingya refugees in Rakhine state, Myanmar, seen in September 2018.
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Ye Aung Thu / AFP / Getty

Source: SCMP, NPR


About 600,000 Rohingya never left Rakhine. But even so, many are still afraid to return because of concerns for their safety.

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A Rohingya farmer with a herd of water-buffaloes in Rakhine State close to Bangladesh.
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Phyo Hein Kyaw / AFP / Getty

Sources: Wall Street Journal, NPR


Another solution is re-homing the Rohingya on an island a two-hour boat ride away from the mainland. But the island, which only emerged around 2006, is flat and formed from sediment. Moving people there would put them at the mercy of floods and storms. A strong cyclone at high tide could submerge the entire island.

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A view of the Thengar Char island in the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh, February 2, 2017.
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Mohammad Ponir / Reuters

Source: Thomson Reuters, PBS


The border between Myanmar and Bangladesh is a tense place, and the Rohingya are caught in the middle.

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Shutterstock