The Forgotten Rohingyas

Six years ago in 2017 Rohingya Muslims were brutally chased out of Rakhine state in Myanmar by the ‘Tatmadaw’ as the Myanmar security forces are known. Most fled to neighbouring Bangladesh where the vast majority remain. At the time the Rohingyas were in the headlines and the first item in news broadcasts but since then their plight has largely fallen out of view – the world now has other crises to worry about: climate change, Putin’s war in Ukraine, the cost of living, the state of the NHS, ongoing strikes across the public sector and so on and so on.

However, the Rohingyas are still there, stuck in refugee camps carved out of cleared forest south of Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh, some 900,000 of them. If anything their plight is every bit as bad if not worse than it was. They had never been accepted by majority-Buddhist Myanmar (aka Burma) and citizenship has always been denied them even though they have lived in Rakhine state for centuries. The Bangladeshi authorities want them to return home as, in fact do most Rohingyas. Although Rakhine state is now largely peaceful, the 600,000 or so Rohingyas that remain there are not living in their villages but in UN-run camps. Not surprisingly the Rohingyas stuck in Bangladesh are not yet ready to return.

Life in the camps is dire. The Rohingyas may have been given refuge in Bangladesh but violence still threatens them. Powerful gangs have sprung up in the camps from amongst the refugees. Part insurgent and part drug smuggling these gangs now terrorise the refugees – around 25, including community leaders have been killed by the gangs since July last year. Kidnapping and extortion are on the rise. It is no longer considered safe to be out at night in the camps.

The Bangladeshi police are supposed to keep things under control but are often a big part of the problem. They are said to be collaborating with the gangs as well as demanding bribes, confiscating goods and, when investigating crimes, framing the innocent. Women can be particularly vulnerable - instances of rape at police stations are by no means unknown.

About half the population of the refugee camps are children. Until last year there were about 30 community-run schools in the camps teaching tens of thousands of children. These were, however shut down last year by Bangladeshi officials. Now only a few schools run by UNICEF and some other NGOs (non-governmental organisations) who have permission to teach the youngest children basic numeracy and literacy remain. At the same time refugees are not allowed to study outside the camps.

Refugees are allowed to work but only in the camps – they are forbidden to work outside. To travel outside the camps requires a written permit from the local authorities. Such restrictions are not uncommon for refugees in many countries and reflect fears on the part of the authorities that the Rohingya will put down roots in Bangladesh. Many are desperate to get out however, and it is estimated that about 250,000 have got hold of fake Bangladeshi passports and have moved abroad to countries in Southeast Asia and Saudi Arabia. Others pay people-smugglers to take them on perilous boat journeys out of Bangladesh.

Faced with dire conditions and few opportunities in the camps it is scarcely surprising that many opt to move into the semi-darkness of illegal status in other countries in the region. Neither is it surprising that some get drawn into the world of gangs as a way of improving their lot. Either way, life in the camps is storing up problems for the future – young refugees are becoming habituated into being unemployable and vulnerable to delinquency and possibly extremism. Pressure could be put on the Bangladeshi government to improve the lot of the Rohingyas by reducing or removing many of the restrictions placed upon them and allowing them at least some chance of more normal lives. However, with the world's eyes on other issues, this is sadly unlikely.

Editor’s note: in writing this article I am indebted to the ‘Banyan’ column published in The Economist magazine on 28th January 2023.

First published on: 23rd February 2023
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