In 2015, I visited the Rohingya refugee camps in the southern region of Bangladesh (I published an article about my experiences in New Matilda). My guide during that time was a young father and husband named Zhakir (name changed). After I left, I asked him to write to me about life in the camps. Here is what he said:
About 35,000 Rohingya refugees live in two “official” camps, Kutupalong and Nayapara, in Cox’s Bazaar in southern Bangladesh. The camps are under the supervision of the UNHCR, but controlled by the Bangladesh government. The camps were established in 1992 when a great number of Rohingya people fled to Bangladesh to save their lives from Myanmar state sponsored persecution. For more than two decades they have been living as refugees.
The United Nations has described Rohingya people as one of the most persecuted people on this planet. Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh face many restrictions and problems: there is no freedom of movement and constant fear of being arrested; many local people intimidate and exert power over the refugees and they rob and physically attack them. In addition, vulnerable refugee women are often raped by the locals.
In these two official camps UNHCR provides basic food, medical aid, and primary education for refugee children; but there is no access to higher education for refugees. Recently, the government has devised a plan to relocate the two official camps to an island named Hatiya. Though most registered refugees are not aware of this plan, some refugees are worried about their lives being in peril if the relocation is implemented. The concern is that climate change is affecting the island and dangerous flooding often occurs.
According to the UNHCR, there are more than 200,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh today, including more than 90,000 unregistered refugees living in two unofficial camps: Leda, Teknaf, Cox’s Bazar and Kutupalong Makeshift, Ukhiya, Cox’s Bazar. Bangladeshi authorities view unregistered refugees as illegal intruders. The UNHCR has not been allowed to register newly arriving Rohingya since mid-1992 and are only allowed to assist those who are registered. As a result, most of these unregistered refugees are suffering. Basic food, medical care and safety are not available in these camps, thus creating an insecure and vulnerable life. In these two unofficial camps, refugees are living in miserable situations as they are unprotected and currently have no humanitarian aid of any kind. They are not receiving minimum fundamental rights in direct violation of international human rights law.
The Kutupalong Makeshift and Leda camps were established in 2007 when the refugees had to move away from the slums of the Naf river site area of Dhumdamia, Teknaf. In Leda camp, there are more than 30,000 refugees, whereas there are more than 70,000 in Kutupalong camp. Muslim Aid, an NGO from the UK, was working for the refugees’ basic health care by running a small clinic at Leda camp. Unfortunately, the NGO had to pull out because of threats towards them from the government, and since then no other NGOs have dared to work in the area for the betterment of the Rohingya refugees. In Kutupalong Makeshift camp, MSF-Holland is working for the refugees and local population, providing basic health care by running a clinic and supervising the health condition of Rohingya refugees in the camp. Still, there is no security for the refugees in both camps and no regular supply of food items, sanitation and water. Rohingyas need to bring water from hillside streams and the wells of local Bengali villages, where many Rohingya females are raped and males attacked time and again. In the rainy seasons, the refugees are wet day and night. In hot seasons they can’t stay inside the slums because of the heat. During the cold seasons they don’t have blankets and other necessary items to keep themselves warm. UNHCR has been trying to register the refugees staying in the makeshift camps but cannot because of the restrictions from the government.
One Rohingya family was arrested at the border of India and Bangladesh. On the border, the people smuggler propositioned one beautiful girl in the family to have sex with him but she refused. He wanted to rape her that night but her parents rescued her. He informed the police and they got arrested. After three years in prison, the head of the family was released last week and came to our camp. He asked many people for donations to bail his family out of prison. Meanwhile, the daughter died in prison for lack of proper medical treatment. Many young people helped him to release his family. The family size is 8 with 5 females, they have no home or household articles. The man can become a labourer and can earn just 150-200 Taka (A$2-3) per day to put towards supporting his whole family.
Inside Myanmar, Rohingya-owned lands are being confiscated and they are denied citizenship status. Under these circumstances, the Rohingya feel hopeless and are unable to help themselves, thus, they are fleeing to different countries. Since they do not have any other means to escape they turn to human traffickers who often put them on boats to take perilous journeys across the water. Recently mass graves were found in Thailand and Malaysia. Many of the trafficking victims were tortured to death when they were unable to pay the ransom demanded by smugglers. Bangladesh is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol. Bangladesh has refused to receive any more refugees as it is an overpopulated country and one of the poorest on earth. So during communal violence in 2012, the Bangladesh government sealed its border to prevent any further influx into the country. Rohingya asylum seekers were sent back to Myanmar and some of them died at sea without food. This drew criticism from the international community.
While the Bangladeshi government has been accommodating to a certain point, considering their limited resources and the poor conditions their own population live under, they are not able to resolve the issues alone. The Rohingya issue has been a long-standing problem, but unfortunately the international community has been mute and has not taken a strong role to help resolve this problem. This chronic refugee crisis for the Rohingya is long overdue for a solution.
Meanwhile, an entire generation of refugee children have grown up in the camps with no means to achieve self-reliance and no hope for a future. Having no rights to higher education and no permission to work out in the community, they spend their days without purpose. This lost generation is a wasted and latent talent with very little hope of contributing to the improvement of the world outside the camp. And yet, even though they are often depressed, they rally themselves and try to remain hopeful and contribute to the welfare of their community. The resolution of the refugee dilemma cannot be achieved by the government of Bangladesh alone and the government of Myanmar has shown that it is unwilling to grant equal rights to the Rohingya; therefore, the international community should take action. The Rohingya people are powerless without the voice and support of the international community.