It was a hot April afternoon – 17-year-old Mohammad Zubair brought me my second cup of coffee (sourced from Myanmar) at the Balukhali Rohingya camp in Bangladesh. As we chatted while watching the Rohingya children play in the dust at the refugee camp, I could not help but wonder, what exactly earned these people the ‘criminal’, ‘outcast’ tag.
In India, this question may possibly find resolution this August, when the apex court gives its judgment.
What is curious to note is that, during my research on Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, my sympathy for the persecuted community did not go down well with the citizens of Bangladesh and India.
“A Rape Survivor Could Not Stop Crying The Entire Time I Was With Her”
‘What is your religion’ – was the standard question I was asked during my stay in Bangladesh, and the answer raised eyebrows. There were Hindus on both sides of the borders, who cautioned against “these barbarous criminal Muslims, who have been persecuted because of their own secessionist nature”. Interestingly, none of my interviewees from among the the 34 camps I had interacted with, endorsed the idea of separation – in fact, none of them even desired to be citizens of Bangladesh. An assurance of security and guarantee of citizenship status would have been enough for them to go back to Myanmar, a lack of which has failed the repatriation process between the government of Bangladesh and Myanmar in November 2018.
My friends in Bangladesh were surprised with the way in which the Rohingya would take me to their camps and let a non-Muslim enter their shelters, and even allow me to interact with the women, including rape survivors. People kept warning me about the dangers of being a single woman traveling to these “violent” camps. What “violence” though? All I got was warmth and kindness during my four-month field visit in January-April 2019.
It was more difficult to talk with the women who had survived rape like Fahima (name changed), living in camp number 115 (number changed), who couldn’t stop crying the entire time I was with her.
Despite aid from the local NGOs, her trauma refuses to leave her, and she breaks down occasionally. Her husband had been murdered. These Rohingya are from the current influx in August 2017.
25 August is now officially marked as ‘genocide day’, and tributes are offered at the camps on that day.
“Difficult To Sustain Nearly One Million Refugees In Bangladesh”
Adolescent Rohingya orphans, who have faced violence in Myanmar, are another vulnerable section surviving in the camps, who require not only material support but emotional and psychological care too. Most of them have witnessed their families being wiped out in front of their eyes. Abdul (name changed), a 14-year-old I met at a camp in Thengkhali, had lost all his family members in August 2017. While his closest family members including his parents and siblings were murdered before his eyes, he survived the attack with severe injuries, but despised such a lonely life. And so he had left Myanmar with his neighbours, to see asylum in the Bangladesh camps.
Hussain, brother of the Majhi (the leader – each camp is divided into several blocks and each block has a leader. All the blocks have one main leader or head majhi) in his block, currently working with the UNHCR, said that Abdul was suffering from depression. He was being helped by his neighbours with ration and cooking, and was studying the Quran in order to become a Maulvi.
Although the government of Bangladesh, with aid from NGOs has been doing excellent humanitarian work, some of the officials with whom I spoke in the Refugee Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, expressed their concerns over the growing population in the camps, that was creating “acute pressure on resources”.
International funding to the NGOs were already on the decline. “This cannot be a long term solution. When we opened our homes and hearts to the refugees, we had thought they could be repatriated within a year. However, it’s already been two years now, and the repatriation process has failed. We do not know what the solution is for a small country like ours, and it is difficult to sustain one million refugees in addition to our population,” a key officer told this author on the condition of anonymity.
He added, “The neighbouring countries in South Asia and Myanmar, along with big international powers, should come together and either provide the Rohingya with citizenship status in Myanmar, or think of other alternatives, as Bangladesh cannot go on housing them forever.”
What Razia Sultana Told Me About Life As A Rohingya In Bangladesh
I was honoured to meet and chat with Razia Sultana on this, a courageous Rohingya woman and a lawyer based in Chittagong, who was honoured by the US Department of State on 7 March at the 2019 International Women of Courage Awards. She was among 10 extraordinary women from around the world to have achieved this award. I was not expecting to meet the very grounded and extremely warm Razia apa.
It’s ironical that although the award has given her recognition for her humanitarian work in the camps, it has also drawn the ire of certain quarters, as media reports claim that she is a Bangladeshi national.
Is she happy to be recognised as a Bangladeshi national, or is she proud of her Rohingya roots?
“Of course, I will forever be a proud Rohingya and I have never ever hidden my identity. I do cherish the international recognition and wishes from many Bangladeshis after I received the award. I have grown up here, and we are extremely indebted for the generosity that the government of Bangladesh has shown in recent years to the Rohingya,” Razia Sultana had told me.
Razia apa had also added, “I have got congratulatory messages from a number of Bangladeshi organisations too, and I do not see a conflict between the two identities that I possess, although I am quite aware of the criticisms that this has drawn. That, however, is not a hindrance, as I have got support from many of our leaders across the globe, and I will continue with the work that I have been doing in the camps, especially on the development and emancipation of women. There is a dire need of education among other things in the camps at the moment.”
Being A Rohingya Woman Refugee In Bangladesh
Razia Sultana had presented me with two of her reports on rape survivors in the camps, whom she had supported through counselling. To quote Sultana: “The systematic use of rape has been organised by the Myanmar Army as a weapon against the Rohingya over the years, and especially in 2017 August. My own research and interviews provide evidence that government troops raped well over 300 women and girls in 17 villages in the Rakhine state.”
“With over 350 villages attacked and burned since August 2017, this number is likely only a fraction of the actual total number of women raped... The life of the Rohingya women in the camps is quite difficult.”
“They not only face the general hardship of insufficient food, shelter and healthcare, but they also face their own specific problems relating to reproductive health and gender-based violence. Since the authorities in the camps are all men, the specific needs of the women are never prioritised,” Razia Sultana said.
Razia apa had also told me: “There are some small centres which are comparatively women-friendly spaces, but their functioning is extremely limited. They do not focus on building skills, as most NGOs do not have the funds for the same.”
“The most important issue that hardly gets enough attention is the psychological trauma that many rape survivors continue to live with. The daily hardship of trying to survive in the in the overcrowded refugee camps is compounding this trauma,” she had added.
What Next For Bangladesh’s Rohingya Refugees?
So what can be done? Razia apa said, “Specific programmes are needed to provide all the women, not just survivors, with an environment where they are free to voice their difficulties. The issue of privacy for the women in makeshift camps is another major area of concern. In their eagerness to break free and find a better place to live, they are falling prey to traffickers who lure them with marriage, jobs, etc. Especially, the camps are not secure for young girls as, despite stringent rules by the Bangladesh government, child marriage and prostitution are taking place. I have also been organising campaigns to generate awareness about reproductive health and birth control measures, but even if some women are convinced and willing to accept pills, there is a dearth of supply.”
Mohib Ullah, another firebrand leader living in the Kutupalong refugee camps, who visited Geneva for a UN talk in February 2019, runs an organisation called the ‘Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights’.
He told this author that the lack of education and employment opportunities were driving the Rohingya youth into frustration, depression and petty crimes, incidents that we get to hear at times from the camps.
He was hopeful that bilateral talks would result in their repatriation.“We do not have a future here in the camps as this is no life. We have to go back to Myanmar as that is our land and we belong there. We are citizens of Myanmar. If all the leaders of our community unify and work together, we can definitely find a solution”.
(Sucharita Sengupta is currently enrolled as a PhD student and Teaching Assistant at the Anthropology and Sociology department of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. Before this, she was working with the Calcutta Research Group in India. Her doctoral work is on statelessness and refugees, with a focus on the Rohingya living in Bangladesh and India. She tweets @Sucharitaseng. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)