Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh drew the attention and concern of the world when they fled deadly violence in Myanmar in 2017. Three years later, they are among the most disempowered people in the world, with the least control over their lives. Recent events have accentuated this, and it is time for change.
In the first week of October, violent clashes between two criminal gangs inside the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar killed at least eight people and injured hundreds of others. Those suffering most from the bloodshed are refugees caught in the middle. The killings must be investigated, the perpetrators held accountable, and refugees protected. These attacks are the last thing that the refugees need, having fled crimes against humanity in Myanmar and languished in limbo ever since. Theirs is a precarious fate, amid constant fears that they could be relocated offshore to a remote silt island soon. Rohingya refugees are now afraid that the authorities could use the camp violence as a pretext for the relocation.
For three years, more than 740,000 Rohingya refugees have been living in threadbare camps, under shelters made of tarpaulins and bamboo. They have been lashed by monsoon rains and endured cyclones and extreme heat. No one should have to live – with no end in sight – in conditions where they have no place to call their home, no work to earn a living, hardly enough food to complete a meal, and no education to build a future.
Including earlier arrivals dating back to 1978, Bangladesh is now host to nearly 1 million refugees. The status quo for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh is neither sustainable nor desirable. At the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) last month, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina regretted that no Rohingya could be repatriated in the past three years and called on “the international community to play a more effective role for a solution to the crisis.”
The Rohingya refugees desire to return to their homes, when it is safe for them to do so. They yearn to see justice for the crimes committed against them. But until things change in Myanmar, they remain confined to the camps in Bangladesh. What they need is to have their voices heard in shaping the decisions that affect their lives.
Unfortunately, decision-making processes about the Rohingya, whether with respect to service provisions within the camps, relocation, or previous attempts at repatriation, lack transparency. This not only fails to take account of their concerns but denies them the right to participate and to exercise their right to freedom of expression. And in seeking to find a solution to an otherwise protracted situation, it shuts out the ideas and the concerns of those who have the greatest stake of all.
Humanitarian staff overseeing operations within the camps say that decisions related to Rohingya refugees and service provisions are complex, unclear, and ad hoc.
Amnesty International last month released a briefing, “Let us speak for our rights,” which highlights the sentiments of refugees about their access to health care, education, justice, information and freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and movement. The words in the title, borrowed from a young Rohingya refugee, reflect the community’s message to the world: They must be allowed to speak for themselves.
Take health care, for example. A Rohingya mother had returned to her home without finding dental care for her 6-year-old son at a health care facility near to her camp in Jadimura. She was baffled when the doctor at the facility asked her, “Do I look like a dentist?”
Health care is key, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Access to health care in the camps is restricted by barriers in language, by the disrespectful behavior from some medical staff, and the lack of access to information about available health care services. Very few Rohingya refugees volunteer to be tested for COVID-19 because of these experiences. They also fear being coerced into isolation and separated from their families. These experiences beg the question about how much authorities take note of patients’ experience and address those failings.
In May, Bangladeshi authorities took more than 300 Rohingya refugees to Bhashan Char, a remote silt island at the Bay of Bengal that has yet to complete a comprehensive technical and protection assessment by the United Nations. The authorities carried out the process without giving the refugees opportunity to participate in the decision. In communication with family members and rights groups, Rohingya refugees on the island urged Bangladesh’s government to send them back to the camps in Cox’s Bazar. The confinement of the refugees on the island for five months against their will amounts to arbitrary detention.
Amnesty International has also documented allegations of sexual abuse on the island by security officials. Instead of commissioning a prompt and impartial investigation into the allegations, the authorities vehemently refused.
In recent months the Bangladeshi authorities have resumed the erection of barbed-wire fences around the camps so that “the Rohingyas do not leave the camp.” Such confinement has multiple effects on the host and refugee communities, from giving rise to territorialism and creating opportunity for bribery by security officials, to heightening the Rohingya refugees’ sense of frustration and alienation.
Bangladesh’s security officials have allegedly killed more than 100 Rohingya refugees in extrajudicial executions during the past three years as part of a crackdown on the illegal drug trade, according to local human rights organization Odhikar. Amnesty International spoke to family members of five Rohingya refugees who were victims of these alleged extrajudicial executions. Three out of the five Rohingya men were reportedly picked up from their homes. “We want to file a complaint and seek justice but who will help us?” asked a 60-year-old Rohingya father, who believes his son is a victim of extrajudicial execution. Typically, family members of victims are not aware about the process of seeking justice while some are afraid of the repercussions of it.
Any durable solution, of the sort for which Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina appealed at the UNGA, will not come through more restrictions on their lives. More Rohingya have arrived in Bangladesh since 1978 than have returned to their homes due to waves of violent attacks and repression in Myanmar. The plight of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh requires the strong leadership from within the community to be heard in order to enable meaningful participation of refugees. This can ensure that their rights and interests are protected and make the work of the Bangladeshi authorities sustainable.
The way Bangladeshi policymakers can begin to address this is by developing a publicly accessible, transparent, and rights-respecting policy, which details how Rohingya refugees can meaningfully participate and be represented in the decisions affecting them. The national and international community must encourage Bangladesh’s government, work with the government, and offer their technical assistance and expertise in developing the policy.
International humanitarian aid is crucial to support the Rohingya refugees, but Bangladesh together with the local, international, and Rohingya community can forge a more sustainable solution to a protracted refugee situation, when the human rights of the refugees are protected and they can claim their rights themselves.
Saad Hammadi is South Asia campaigner at Amnesty International. Twitter: @saadhammadi