The Rohingya crisis: one year on

Findings from two months of fieldwork

M Mizanur Rahman, Tasfi Sal-sabil

Society and culture, International relations, Development | Southeast Asia, South Asia

29 August 2018

The international community must come together to help bring the Rohingya Refugees home—wherever that might be, write PhD candidates M Mizanur Rahman and Tasfi Sal-sabil, after fieldwork in Bangladesh.

Rabeya, a 50 year old Rohingya woman, describes her journey to Bangladesh. But Rabeya’s story is just one in more than a million. A year ago this week, on 25 August 2017, around 1.25 million Rohingya fled Rakhine state to escape genocide. The majority of the escapees are women and children, comprising of 52 and 55 per cent respectively, as reported by the Joint Response Planfor the Rohingya crisis.

The scale of the influx makes it one of the biggest refugee crises in recent history. The poor but welcoming host communities of Cox’s Bazar, the aid agencies, and the Bangladesh government were not prepared to manage this influx—and this has massively impacted both sides.

We had the opportunity to spend almost two months in Cox’s Bazar to conduct fieldwork, by holding interviews and focus groups with more than a hundred Rohingya living in the camps. In Rakhine state, these refugees experienced more hardship than we could ever have imagined. The Burmese military and local Rakhine people took every effort to wipe the Rohingya Muslims from the land they lived on. The recollections of the atrocities they faced in Rakhine state, and of the two-week-long journey they undertook by foot to Bangladesh, were horrific.

But, their current living situation in the refugee camp is also devastating. While in the refugee camps the Rohingya have escaped persecution, in their hearts, they no longer have hope for a better life.

Rohingya Camp

Cox’s Bazaar. Image by authors

The district of Cox’s Bazar is small, spanning only 2,492 square kilometres. The area is now host to more than 1.25 million Rohingya—70 per cent of Cox Bazar’s total population. To accommodate more than a million people within the span of a few weeks, forests had to be cleared, and thousands of makeshift accommodations built, without any proper sanitation system.

These structures are congested and ill-equipped to handle the monsoon downpour. An August 2018 Inter Sector Coordination Group report warns that 246,600 Rohingya refugees are highly vulnerable to floods and landslides. After the heavy rains on 25 and 26 July 2018, nearly 60 incidents of landslides, winds, floods, and waterlogging were reported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The water and sanitation systems in the camps are poor, causing huge health issues. Monsoon season has increased water borne diseases like acute watery diarrhoea and cholera. Even managing medical waste in the camps has been a critical challenge.

The Rohingya are not allowed to leave the camp areas, so the refugees do not have the opportunity to secure work in the town. Aid agencies are providing food and other goods, but the provisions are not enough—in fact, they are often inappropriate. The Rohingya are forced to sell unwanted aid items in the local market to buy fish, meat, or vegetables, which are not provided in the aid packs.

Attitudes towards the Rohingya are changing. The host communities that warmly welcomed the refugees have now become critical, concerned about the massive deforestation, degradation of air and water quality, and especially the huge crowd occupying the area. A number of locals have expressed concerns on safety and security issues.

Staying in the refugee camps in Bangladesh is not the solution to the problem, as Bangladesh itself has significant internal challenges and vulnerabilities. We are not optimistic about third country resettlement either, as there is no indication of interest from any other country. In 2016, there were 17.2 million refugees of concern to UNHCR around the world, but less than one per cent were resettled that year.

Rohingya man

Image by authors

Safe repatriation has been the only option discussed by the international community. All the Rohingya we interviewed are desperate to go back to their own land, but so far, the Burmese government’s attitude towards the Rohingya has not instilled any hope. Myanmar agreed to take back the Rohingya but the returnees have been subjected to attack and captivity.

Even if the government allows the Rohingya to return home, the animosity that has grown in the heart of the Rakhine between Buddhist and Rohingya communities will take years to recover.

Now it’s up to the international community. Will we let this shameful atrocity against the Rohingya go unaddressed? Or, will we take decisive action to put an end to it?

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