The Rohingya refugees in limbo: No acceptable resolution in sight for repatriation
I was recently in Dhaka for two weeks on a project assignment. Once the work was over, I flew to Cox's Bazar along with a long-time colleague and professor of the University of Dhaka, to see firsthand the plight of the Rohingya refugees ever since the exodus of the displaced Rohingyas arriving in thousands had started in August-September2017. Today, the whole world is watching this deteriorating human tragedy without any immediate and acceptable resolution in sight. The situation and the ongoing discussions with regard to repatriation are largely no different than it was a year ago.
The Rohingya people are in limbo and living with uncertainties in refugee camps in Ukhiya and Teknaf near Cox's Bazar. The camp life is slowly improving with much needed access, infrastructure and basic amenities and supplies, including extensive healthcare support by local and international NGOs. However, there is no tangible progress in talks with Myanmar. The military in Myanmar is consistently defying calls by international bodies for any investigations into the genocidal atrocities against the Rohingya Muslims. To date, all moves and actions by the Myanmar government clearly indicate that the country is not ready and prepared to accept its own people with their full rights as citizens and the dignity they deserve.
The largest refugee camp globally:
We met our local guide/NGO worker at the hotel in Cox's Bazar. We were also joined by another local NGO worker/translator in the field. We visited the camps over two days and met with and interviewed Rohingya refugees, government officials, aid agencies, relief organizations and NGO workers on the ground. I present here only some glimpses of what we saw and observed, and summarize those in short narratives highlighting the scale of atrocities committed by the Myanmar military and the issues and concerns of the people now in exile.
There are 32 camps in Cox's Bazar spreading over a stretch of 62 km on both sides of the Ukhiya to Teknaf highway and on the surrounding hills. A visit to the camps can be invaluable and overwhelming experience at the same time as the camps in Cox's Bazar have now close to 1.0 million refugees, the largest refugee camp anywhere globally.Each camp has on an average over 250,000 refugees. Wevisited three camps - Kutupalong/Camp 3, Camp 4/Extension and Camp 13 - during our stay in Cox's Bazar.
No need to run for life:
Kutupalong/Camp 3: The camp is located on the hilltop. One can see from this point a panoramic view of the growing refugee camps surrounding the hills. Thanks to the army, the internal road networks built in recent months allowed us a quick drive through assessment of many campsites, which are still under construction and/or rebuilding. We were told that those who live in Camp 3 and its neighbourhood came from the same villages back home in the Rakhine state.
As soon as we stopped, our local assistant asked for the camp majhi (a Rakhine word for headman), who represents his Block to the local camp administration. Each camp has a head majhi, supported by Block and sub-block majhi, for camp management and operations. Within minutes a middle-aged person named Kazimuddin (fictitious name used to protect identity) came out of his shanty house. I was able to follow Kazimuddin's conversation, as it was a slight variation of the local Chittagonian dialect. Kazimuddin's village was burned to the ground in August 2017. His father was shot and brutally killed by the Myanmar army. The rest of the family members, women and children, ran for their lives, very traumatized and with injuries from gunshots. It took his family 7 days to cross the border at Teknaf. Kazimuddin hopes that they won't have to run for their lives anymore. The rest of the people who were around us echoed the same sentiment.
Women were held and gang raped:
Kutupalong: Camp 3 and 4/Extension: We talked to two separate groups of women with the help of our female field assistant. Rohingyas are very conservative Muslims and would not talk to any male "outsiders." Rohingya women typically clad fully from head to toes with only their eyes open through the dress (niqab). This clearly distinguishes them from local women. We were told that women don't work in their culture and they would prefer to keep it that way. "Women should stay home," said a young married man. Despite ongoing efforts by NGOs, only a limited number of Rohingya women have opted for employment.
Some of the horror stories came out during discussion with Rohingya men. Thousands of women were violated and raped by the army. We were told that gang rape by the army was common in their villages as the army picked up women during their routine patrol and kept them in their camps for days. The army indiscriminately tortured young men in our villages and targeted women during their raids. The family members had to witness such unspeakable atrocities. "We have been living in hell," said one. In Camp 4/Extension, we met couple of young doctors at the Gonoshastha Clinic. We were told that most patients at the clinic are women and children. The trauma and horror still haunt them. Women and children are the worst victims of this tragedy.
Repatriation or relocation:
Camp 13/ThaingKhai: Abu Ahmed (42) had a store right in downtown Maungdaw. Many people were slaughtered in this town. After the incident on 25 August 2017, Abu Ahmed had realized the ensuing dangers and decided to leave for the safety of his family. A police station beside his house was patrolling the street. However, he was able to flee with his family. Together with 600 families, he crossed the border on 06 September 2017. Elian Ali (56), a former chairman of the village council and now a majhi of his camp, narrated how brutal the army was to Rohingya. Elian Ali was arrested, beaten and tortured and then the army threw him in a ditch beside the road. Other villagers later rescued him. There are endless stories like this. Indeed, every refugee in the camp has a story of his/her own.
When asked about repatriation talks and plans, many people around us looked at each other in fear and disbelief. "The time is not right," one said. "We have zero rights in Myanmar," said another. "The Myanmar government must develop the right conditions to build confidence amongst us to return," said Abu Ahmed. He continued: "The Myanmar government should give citizenship to those Rohingyas who are now inside Myanmar, ensure their rights, free them from the concentration camps, return their lands and build their houses which were burned down to the ground. Only then, we will have confidence to return home." When asked about relocation to Bhasanchar, one refugee responded: "I am willing to go to Bhasanchar than returning to Myanmar now."
The refugees are crammed in the camps, but still feel safe and protected. The question remains: Where do the Rohingyas go from here?
Mohammad Zaman is a social safeguards/resettlement specialist and advisory professor, National Research Centre for Resettlement (NRCR), Hohai University, Nanjing, China.
He can be reached at: mail:[email protected]