Rohingya: From Welcome to Lock-up

A family breaks sunset fast during Ramadan in Modurchara Camp 5, part of the sprawling Rohingya refugee settlement in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh (photo: UNICEF/UN0219105/Modola - June 4, 2018).

Without a doubt, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina did the right thing in September 2017 by granting protection to the Rohingya Muslim minority arriving in Bangladesh. These refugees and forced migrants were fleeing a genocide perpetrated by Myanmar’s brutal military, which seized lands, burned homes, mosques, and hundreds of villages. Half of the Rohingya women who escaped the atrocities reported being abused sexually.

In Bangladesh at first there was widespread popular sympathy for Rohingya genocide survivors: after all, many Bangladeshis could remember what mass displacement feels like. But this solidarity quickly changed to resentment. Once again, Rohingya Muslims became a convenient scapegoat to blame. 

Media and social media have both spread wrong ideas about the Rohingya. Social ills exist, as in any persecuted, impoverished community, but these ills were emphasized to divide Bangladeshi from Rohingya. Though most humanitarian support comes from abroad, people came to imagine the refugees in Cox’s Bazar had a comfortable, secure life. The Government leaders made comments about NGO staff living in five-star hotels. And regarding relocation to Bhasan Char, many Bangladeshis imagined that the concrete buildings on that island were a step up to luxury, rather than the isolated prison that most refugees see.  

On June 7, 2021 Human Rights Watch published a report, An Island Jail in the Middle of the Sea, alleging the government misled Rohingya refugees and international donor communities regarding the conditions on Bhasan Char. Some refugees described being forced to relocate without informed consent. Rohingya refugees interviewed for the HRW report agreed that the shelters on the island were superior to those in the Cox Bazar camps and contained more open space, but they reported food shortages, inadequate health services, lack of formal education opportunities, freedom of movement restrictions, and lack of livelihood opportunities. Some refugees alleged their relatives were arbitrarily detained and beaten for attempting to leave the island. Some also reported being beaten for trying to move outside their compound. 

The Bangladesh Government has made a series of unnecessary, counter-productive restrictions on the Rohingya genocide survivors that have seriously undermined its position globally.  The government did not recognize the arrivals as refugees, referring to them instead as “forcibly displaced Burmese nationals,” but abided by many of the established UN standards for refugees. One notable exception was that the Rohingya did not enjoy full freedom of movement throughout the country. Government officials stated repatriation was the government’s only goal, stressing privileges such as freedom of movement, formal education, or livelihood opportunities could not be afforded to the Rohingya population. The Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar were surrounded by barbed and concertina wire fencing with few pedestrian gates to allow the Rohingya to move among the camps or into the local community. The lack of pedestrian gates hampered egress during a large fire in some camps.

On March 22, 2021 a fire erupted in the Balukhali area of the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp, killing at least 15 refugees. UNHCR estimated the fire injured 550 refugees and left more than 48,000 homeless. While local fire and rescue teams and aid agencies responded, witnesses to the fire reported the barbed wire through and around the camps restricted the ability of refugees to flee and responders to reach them. UN News reported the frequent fires in the Cox’s Bazar camps left the refugee community traumatized.

According to a 2021 survey by the UNHCR, access to employment was the greatest concern in the camps. In recent weeks, Bangladesh authorities have demolished thousands of shops owned by Rohingya refugees which was a vital source of income for covering basic needs and supplementing aid rations. Authorities in Bangladesh said, “Livelihood opportunity is not the responsibility of Bangladesh.” They forget that cutting them off from opportunities to work is only compounding their vulnerability and dependency on aid. HRW has recommended formalizing and expanding employment opportunities to bolster Rohingya’s self-reliance and enable them to support their families and communities. 

April is Genocide Awareness Month in the international community, an opportunity to reflect on our collective inability to respond to mass atrocities. How have the Bangladesh authorities responded to the Rohingya Genocide?

Bangladesh hasn’t ratified the Refugee Convention and the government does not even formally recognize Rohingya as refugees. It seems to imagine Rohingya are some sort of economic migrant. As noted above, in recent years the Government has forbidden employment, and even moved to close all the small stores in the camps. This policy is contrary to human nature and counterproductive to keeping order. What are people supposed to do without jobs? No wonder we see social ills like trafficking.

As Amnesty International reported this month, authorities do not include Rohingya in decision making that affects their future. During the first year of the pandemic, there were even restrictions on mobile phones and internet, impeding the work of NGOs and making distance learning impossible for students. But the Bangladesh Government has shown itself remarkably hostile to Rohingya children’s education. As many studies have indicated, there are over 500,000 children in the camps and the older children lack access to education, cutting off hope for the future. Rohingya people care about their children’s future; they have started volunteer-run schools in the camps for both girls and boys. But this year the authorities have been obsessed with shutting these schools down. 

And now, the Bangladesh government seems to have moved from banning children’s education to banning children. The recent headlines read “Birth Control Measures Planned in Rohingya Camps: Home Minister.” Are the authorities proposing coercive measures, as we see imposed on the Uyghur genocide victims in Xinjiang, China? The threatening style of announcing this new policy does not suggest a sensitive emphasis on education and woman’s empowerment.

We speak to Rohingya on a regular basis. Despite the new barbed wire and restrictions on movement, the harassment at checkpoints and the numerous destructive fires in the camps, Rohingya want and deserve to be like everyone else. Though training and education are needed, they have much to offer. They know life is precious. They love their families. Almost every single Rohingya wants to return to Burma once it is safe and they have homes and rights. To that end, there is much work to be done. In the meantime, let’s work together to easing their pains, and not make their lives more miserable.

In Ramadan, we must ask ourselves if we are living the values of our religious teachings. For a moment, let’s imagine ourselves as a Rohingya refugee who has fled genocide, and cut off from communicating with the rest of the world, and is now living in a squalid camp with restricted movement and no education for children and adults, and denial of means of livelihood and every opportunity for bettering the lives of family members. 

Do we have to take a cue about how the Ukrainian refugees are treated? How does our treatment of the Rohingya compare against those of the Ansars of Madinah to the Muhajirs of Makkah? 

We suggest that we search our souls regarding our treatment of our Rohingya brothers and sisters. How did our response to their suffering change from the sacred impulse of hospitality into mass incarceration? 

Rohingyas deserve better treatment. They need our empathy and not sympathy for their plight. 

About the authors: Adem Carroll is the Director of UN Programs. He leads the Burma Task Force Team at Justice For All. Dr. Habib Siddiqui is a peace activist who has written and advocated for the rights of the Rohingya.

READ MORE: After a Devastating Fire, a Somber Ramadan for Rohingya Children


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