Traumatized, exhausted, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are living out another chapter in their painful history as an unwanted people. Amnesty’s Deputy South Asia Director, Omar Waraich, joined a research mission to document their experiences in Cox’s Bazar, a district shaped by the sufferings of Rohingya people over centuries.
It seems fitting that Cox’s Bazar, site of the world’s longest beach front, was named after a refugee crisis. In 1784, King Bodaw U Waing, the sixth monarch of Burma’s Konbaung dynasty, laid siege to the last vestiges of the Arakanese kingdom. Under the leadership of the Burmese king’s son and heir apparent, the Burmese forces slayed Arakan’s King Thamada and seized control of the territory. The Arakanese were forced to flee, taking refuge in what is now the southeasterly tail of Bangladesh. The East India Company dispatched Captain Hiram Cox to the area to supervise relief efforts for the refugees. Today, the Cox’s Bazar district is home to the largest humanitarian crisis of our time. Not since the Rwandan genocide have so many people been displaced so fast. Since 25 August, more than 620,000 Rohingya refugees have made the arduous days-long, sometimes weeks-long, journey from their villages in Rakhine State. Bearing much pain and few possessions, they travelled by foot to the Naf River, the slender strip of water that divides Myanmar and Bangladesh, to find themselves at the mercy of boatmen who sensed opportunity in their misery.
The boatmen forced the refugees to part with whatever cash and jewellery they carried with them. The Rohingya had no choice. They could not return to their villages, which had been reduced to ashes. The horrors they endured there – the killings, rape and torture – impelled them to seek sanctuary across the border. Even now, three months later, they continue to stream through the thick, lime-green paddy fields, wearing signs of exhaustion. Their faces are drawn, their bare feet badly bruised and their eyes offer a glimpse of their grief. The crisis has put a great deal of strain on the humanitarian community, which is doing its best in the circumstances. At the border’s edge, the refugees are offered a bottle of water to quench their thirst, a high-energy biscuit to restore their strength, and a place in the shade for some much-needed rest. Those with medical needs are separated and led to the nearest camp hospital. There are refugees with wounds that need to be treated. Many have acquired diseases along the journey. According to the Bangladeshi health authorities, there are 30,000 pregnant women among the refugees, a large number of whom need the attention of a gynaecologist.
OVER 620,000 Rohingya refugees fled Rakhine State, Myanmar, for Bangladesh between late August and December 2017
30,000 pregnant women were among them
1970s–2017 Rohingya Muslims also fled Myanmar military attacks in the late 1970s, early 1990s and throughout the past decade
1 MILLION- Bangladesh is now hosting nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees.
These people may be safe, for now, but their ordeal continues. Set up in the 1990s to accommodate tens of thousands of Rohingya who were driven out by an earlier wave of violence, the Kutupalong camp grew overcrowded and has been extended in every direction. Three thousand acres of previously forested area have been cleared to make way for an endless sprawl of flimsy bamboo and tarpaulin tents. The weather is barely endurable. The searing heat is interrupted only by monsoon rains and severe gusts of wind that cause the shelters to tremble. There are fears for what will happen when the looming cyclone season arrives. In the camps, the refugees are easy prey to those who seek to exploit them. Criminal gangs and human traffickers are a constant menace. There are fears that women are being exploited sexually, that children – with no schools to go to – are being forced into labour, and that young men are being sought out by armed groups. The Bangladesh government has been noted for its generosity, but patience appears to be wearing thin. Members of the government and the opposition publicly complain that Bangladesh does not have the resources to bear this burden.
The country is now hosting nearly a million Rohingya refugees, Jan–Mar 2018 13 if one counts those who still languish in the Cox’s Bazar district, driven out by the Myanmar military’s violent attacks in the late 1970s, the early 1990s and throughout the past decade. In November, Bangladesh signed a repatriation agreement with the Myanmar government, the vague terms of which have raised fears about a hasty return that may deny the refugees the safety and dignity that is their due. The refugees we spoke to said they would like to go home one day, but not before “peace” returns. Their greatest fear is that they will become victims, yet again, of a renewed wave of violence. They don’t want to be condemned to the fate of a perpetually unwanted people, consigned like so many refugees who came before them to Cox’s Bazar.