Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh – Just after midday on a Saturday afternoon Hakim Ali stands calmly by a police checkpoint on the fringes of Bangladesh’s main Rohingya refugee settlement area.
He tells a policeman on duty that he needs to see his child, who is in a hospital beyond the checkpoint.
The officer tells Ali he needs an official letter verifying that his child is at the hospital.
But Ali, carrying nothing with him, has no such letter and resigns to the fact he must turn around.
The interaction between Ali and the officer isn’t particularly confrontational.
Denied access, Ali turns back towards the Balukhali-Kutupalong settlement area and begins the 45 minute walk back to his makeshift home.
As he leaves, Ali says he did want to visit the hospital, but admits he was ultimately headed to the city of Cox’s Bazar to find work so he could afford to buy fish and vegetables.
Ali is one of more than 650,000 Rohingya who have fled Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh since the state launched a brutal crackdown on the minority group last August. The UN has described the crackdown as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, documenting allegations of widespread killings, sexual violence and other abuse.
Being a fisherman in Myanmar, Ali says he has grown especially weary of his diet in the camps, which consists of primarily of rice and lentils provided by the World Food Programme (WFP).
“I don’t like to eat lentils and rice every day,” Ali says.
“I like to eat fish or vegetables one or two times a week,” he explains.
“I miss the taste of fish,” he says, adding that he feels stronger when he eats fish and vegetables.
The restriction on movement and lack of a diverse diet have forced many Rohingya, like Ali, to seek other methods to get the food they want and need.
One of the primary ways they have done so is by selling their WFP food assistance for cash.
Insufficient dietary diversity
The WFP said it reached 882,000 refugees during its latest round of food distributions in Bangladesh.
But the organisation tells Al Jazeera it is aware there are limitations to the variety and nutritional value of their current food baskets.
A survey conducted WFP and other aid groups late last year showed that child malnutrition is particularly worrisome. At least 24 percent of children between six and 59 months old in Kutupalong area were malnourished.
As a result of the findings, the WFP says it is looking to improve the dietary diversity of what they offer to the Rohingya by scaling up of an existing e-voucher programme, which allows refugees to buy 19 types of food through prepaid debit card entitlements.
“I don’t like to eat lentils and rice every day. I like to eat fish or vegetables one or two times a week. I miss the taste of fish.
And while the WFP aims to have all Rohingya in Bangladesh enrolled in the programme by the end of the year, only a fraction currently participate, leaving many Rohingya with the only option of selling whatever they can to locals so they can buy fish, vegetables and other food in nearby markets.
“It’s not filling, last month my husband fasted so that we would have enough food,” Shenwara, who only goes by one name, tells Al Jazeera, referring to what is offered in the WFP food baskets.
Crouched over a small stove built from the ground in a dark corner of her family’s hut in the Kutupalong area of the settlement, the mother of four prepares the few fish her family was able to buy.
Since coming to Bangladesh, Shenwara says she’s sold most of her jewellery, for around $100, to help her family survive.
Pointing to the nose ring she’s still wearing, she says: “I’ll try to keep it because it’s the last one, but if I have to sell it, I will.”
A market for aid assistance
The food aid and other items Ali, Shenwara and others sell ends up in unofficial markets in Bangladesh.
Down a narrow street not far from the settlement area, traders set up shop every evening on a dusty ground of an empty square behind the main market of an area called Court Bazar.
Their makeshift market is like many others across Asia, but what is different is how much of what they’re selling is aid assistance, bought directly from Rohingya refugees or third parties.
Empty orange bins, boxes of cooking oil and plates, blankets and packages of children’s food lie spread out on the ground before the vendors, all plastered with UNFPA, IOM, UKAID or UNHCR logos.
Food assistance supplies are bought and sold in makeshift marketplace in Bangladesh [Ashish Malhotra/Al Jazeera]
A Rohingya refugee who goes by Satara says she’s sold WFP food aid five times since coming to Bangladesh.
She says her family needs more food and a greater variety in their diets.
“It’s not enough,” says Satara, who lives with her five sisters in Kutupalong, “I brought money with me from Myanmar and whenever there was a shortage of food over the past five months I used that money. But now it’s run out.”
For Satara, selling packets of lentils has been a quick way to get some money.
But the unregulated nature of such transactions, coupled with refugees desperate to get a little cash, allows for sales that take place well below market price.
It’s not filling, last month my husband fasted so that we would have enough food.
Shenwara, a mother of four
When told by other locals that a packet of lentils she sold for 250 Taka ($3) may actually be worth 900 (around $11), Satara says she feels cheated.
“I feel really bad and don’t want to sell those things at that price anymore,” she says.
Traders at the Court Bazar market tell Al Jazeera that police arrested some of them for reselling the aid on one occasion last month.
But they were soon released after paying some money, and show little concern about any future action against them.
Rashid*, a teenage trader who, like many, spoke openly about what he sells, says he does not feel bad about selling the aid meant for Rohingya refugees.
“I’m doing it for profit. I’m not the only one doing it. If I don’t do it, someone else will,” he says.
Several refugees told Al Jazeera they have sold their food assistance packages to raise money [Ashish Malhotra/Al Jazeera]
The WFP said that it up to refugees to decide what they do with the aid they receive.
“In a situation like this, where refugees have lost everything and are struggling to meet all of their basic needs, it may happen that some refugees will sell a portion of their food rations in order to buy other urgent items” Shelley Thakral, a Communications Officer with WFP in Bangladesh tells Al Jazeera.
“While this is not our intention, once the food has been given to the refugees, it is their decision what to do with it,” she added.
Local officials meanwhile, say they are aware that aid materials are being sold, but that they’ve found it difficult to pinpoint the culprits.
“There is so much information I’ve already received regarding this issue and I have sent my officers to verify … but actually I could not find anything,” Md Ali Hossain, the Deputy Commissioner of the Cox’s Bazar district tells Al Jazeera.
“I need clear, authentic information that this market, in this area, is selling the relief materials,” he adds. “It is totally illegal.”
Back in the Balukhali-Kutupalong settlement area, Hakim Ali says he is determined to go to Cox’s Bazar to find work and help support his family’s nutritional and other needs.
“I’m just trying to escape,” Ali says.
“If I succeed, I’ll visit my child and then go and try to do some work. If I can’t, I’ll come back here.”
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of a minor.