I first met six-year-old Amina in the Kutupalong refugee camp in 2019. I couldn’t help noticing the forlorn image of life in the camps she depicted—a child alone in a corner, playing with a flammable item instead of a toy. Later, Amina’s mother told me that she was hiding under the bed when the Myanmar military surrounded their household in Rakhine. She watched them kill her father and grandfather, and lay hidden while they gang-raped her mother. She hadn’t said a word to anyone outside of her family since then.
Amina’s mother also spoke of how lost she felt now that her parents and husband were dead. She lamented, “What will happen to my child?” During visits to the refugee camps, I have heard this refrain over and over again from Rohingya parents—”what will happen to my child?”
I started with this story because right after the 2017 refugee exodus from Myanmar—the result of military operations termed as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” by the then UN human rights chief—there was a lot more interest in Bangladesh regarding the human faces of the Rohingya who fled here. The stories of brutal murders, rapes and villages being burned en masse stirred something in the hearts of a nation prone to feel empathy towards persecuted populations. However, after four years of hosting close to a million refugees and feeling the strain on our local resources, that empathy has fast changed into refugee fatigue, and often downright aggression.
If mainstream and social media is anything to go by, we are no longer interested in hearing the stories of religious and racial persecution of this minority. Instead, we have fallen into the habit of speaking in sweeping generalisations only. In such a huge and diverse population, the stories of courage and agency—the Rohingya social workers teaching women about birth control, the elders passing on their language to the young, the youth volunteers engaging in community service—these stories are of no interest either. The words of the day, when it comes to refugees, are “crime”, “drugs” and, of course, “repatriation”.
The final buzzword is one thing that we can all agree on at least—despite what many may think, most Rohingya refugees have no desire to spend their whole lives confined in camps, however improved their conditions may be. A common accusation that you often hear against refugees in Bangladesh is that they are living a life of “comfort” and they would much rather live here for “free” than go back home. These voices have become even louder in the wake of Bhashan Char, where the resettled refugees have better accommodation and facilities (although the recent deaths of three Rohingya children amidst an outbreak of diarrhoea on the island shows that all is not as well as it seems).
While there are definitely marginalised pockets of our own citizens who would consider a daily ration of rice and lentils and a plastic tarpaulin over their heads a luxury, I can guarantee that the people who are repeating these xenophobic tropes are not one of them. And this perception of refugees as free-loaders completely erases their identities and personal histories. Do we really believe the Rohingya people would choose to live out the rest of their lives fenced in with barbed wire, without livelihoods, education and freedom of movement, a stone’s throw from their homeland, simply for the sake of “free” shelter and rations?
There is no question that Bangladesh has acted magnanimously when it comes to hosting refugees. And at almost every event hosted in the refugee camps, such as the ones organised on Rohingya Genocide Remembrance Day every year, this gratitude towards the Bangladeshi authorities has been expressed by the Rohingya. Which makes it all the more depressing that when legitimate questions are asked about their current status—such as the right to education of over 450,000 Rohingya children in the camps who are being denied access to basic accredited education—our general reaction has been to shrug our shoulders and say “not our problem”.
Time and again, Bangladesh has said that it cannot solely take responsibility for the Rohingya refugees, and the authorities are justified in saying so. But by failing to uphold their cause and create legitimate platforms where refugee voices can be amplified, we have made an error of judgment—because from the looks of it, the rest of the world, instead of stepping up in our place, have also washed their hands of the “refugee problem”.
At the latest G7 meeting, global leaders met to discuss the pandemic, climate change and security issues—there was hardly a mention of the world’s 26.4 million refugees (UNHCR estimate from mid-2020). Earlier this month, The Guardian reported that British foreign aid cuts of 42 percent will leave around 70,000 people without health services and 100,000 without water in Cox’s Bazar, affecting not only refugees but host communities as well. Aid for Rohingya refugees has been dwindling by the year, with the latest Joint Response Plan receiving only 35 percent of the USD 943 million needed for 2021. Again, these funds are allocated not just to meet the needs of nearly a million refugees, but for almost half a million vulnerable Bangladeshis in Cox’s Bazar as well.
Would things have been different if we had pushed a different narrative—if, say, instead of saying the Rohingya must return and the rest is not our concern, we had spoken up for a comprehensive solution that involved humane camp conditions, and donor investment in refugee training and education for third-country settlement, alongside dignified and safe repatriation to Myanmar? Could we have used our moral authority as the country with the largest Rohingya refugee population to remind other countries of their responsibilities, such as Japan and Saudi Arabia—who, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, are guilty of taking in the least refugees despite having the best means? Bangladesh’s presence in the region is no longer a minor one, as can be seen from the financial assistance we recently sent to Sri Lanka and the medical aid gifted to Nepal and India. So could we not have demonstrated that same leadership and diplomatic authority in denouncing the military coup in Myanmar and pushing other countries to do the same?
Earlier this month, ASEAN representatives met with the junta chief but failed to come up with a solution to the crisis in Myanmar or even condemn the military’s illegal takeover. At around the same time, Myanmar’s shadow civilian government made a landmark announcement, pledging to amend the country’s constitution and grant citizenship to the Rohingya if it regains power from the military. Which of these parties do our long-run interests coincide with? We need to carefully consider this while mulling our future diplomatic strategy concerning refugees.
The solution to the refugee crisis is not an easy one, but it will become even more difficult if Bangladesh and other refugee-hosting countries fail to play a leading role in engaging the international community and ensuring that donor support for the Rohingya does not continue to dwindle. And in order to play this role, we need to end the demonisation of refugees and see them for who they are—not free-loaders, not criminals, but a vast and diverse population struggling to survive and build a better life for future generations after being driven out of their native land.
To mark this year’s World Refugee Day, Save the Children has released a report revealing that more than 700,000 Rohingya children across Asia are being denied their most basic rights. On this day, let us remember that we as a nation are well-aware of the fact that people can live through the most desperate situations, but what they cannot live without is hope. The Rohingya refugees are not here to snatch the bread out of the mouths of ordinary Bangladeshis, but for the most humane of reasons, as the question that is oft-repeated in the camps show—”what will happen to my child?”
Shuprova Tasneem is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is @shuprovatasneem.