For Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, it's been five years of suffering
Five years ago today, on August 25th, the Myanmar military launched a mass pogrom against the country’s Muslim Rohingya population, forcing more than 700,000 to flee. Before neighbouring states could officially respond, the people of Bangladesh first mobilised various resources to alleviate the suffering of the refugees.
At that moment, the world saw survivors of a past genocide in solidarity with those fleeing an ongoing one. With the public's support, Bangladesh then officially opened their borders to the fleeing Rohingya.
The response of other South and Southeast Asian nations, united in their disdain toward the Rohingya, has been overwhelmingly frustrating. India deports Rohingya refugees after sailing the treacherous Andaman Sea, Indonesia denies them entry and sends their boats to Malaysia, which detains them upon arrival.
"The world has moved on, leaving the Rohingya unsupervised at the hands of an inexperienced state battling climate change, an economic crisis, food insecurity, and political instability"
Others languish in overcrowded, inhumane camps or detention centres in Pakistan, Thailand and Nepal. In April of this year, 6 Rohingya refugees were killed on a Malaysian highway as hundreds fled an immigration detention centre.
Today, Bangladesh still hosts more than 1 million Rohingya refugees. But the world has moved on, leaving the Rohingya unsupervised at the hands of an inexperienced state battling climate change, an economic crisis, food insecurity, and political instability.
Rohingya refugees have found themselves in an increasingly desperate situation as Myanmar violently cracks down and arms gangs plague refugee camps: https://t.co/l8d8q43Dso— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) November 25, 2021
A shifting climate
Conditions for the Rohingya have become increasingly alarming, with Bangladesh's political and social climate quickly shifting from solidarity to animosity. What was once a forest that belonged to wild elephants has become the largest refugee camp in the world, with a barbed wire fence enclosing the camp that resembles an open-air prison.
The Rohingya have been subject to extrajudicial killings, forced relocation, increasingly invasive surveillance, and restricted freedom of movement. Many of their homes have been destroyed by flooding and fires, while there are tight restrictions on marriage, and limited access to food, aid or healthcare.
Racially-charged and dehumanising language against the Rohingya has become the norm. A promising future is becoming harder to envision; what is left for a people once you deprive all signs of humanity?
Yaba is a type of methamphetamine that is smuggled from China and Thailand to Myanmar, where it is then smuggled through refugee camps into Bangladesh. With millions of people now addicted, the Rohingya are blamed for the Yaba epidemic.
Last month, at an event in Dhaka entitled 'Rohingya and Narco Terrorism', Bangledesh’s Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal stated that the "The Rohingyas are not consumers of Yaba, but they are the ones who smuggle it” and vowed to criminalise those accused of destabilising the country.
Yet, it is the Rohingya who are disproportionately the victims of state-sanctioned detention and extrajudicial killings justified under the Narcotics Control Bill of 2018. Since September 2021, Bangladesh police have arrested nearly 2,000 Rohingya allegedly involved in criminal activities, including drug dealing, while hundreds have been killed in 'shootouts' with law enforcers.
"Cooped up in camps with limited resources, the hostile conditions created by the Bangladeshi government often force Rohingya refugees into a life of drug smuggling"
Desperate people forced into desperate situations
Cooped up in camps with limited resources, the hostile conditions created by the Bangladeshi government often force Rohingya refugees into a life of drug smuggling. Despite the enormous dangers and low earnings, with no other legal means to earn money, many feel that trafficking Yaba is their only means of survival.
According to Nur Khan, a human rights activist working with the Rohingya, "criminal activities within the camps are not as widespread as they are portrayed". He accused those spreading these stories of "victim blaming". Khan links conflicts to the fact that large populations live in congested camps with "no access to education or entertainment".
Khan also indicated that public representatives were accused of leading the drug trade. It seems that the extent of the institutional problem is severe, with state authorities, local politicians and police officers allegedly supporting and profiting from the smuggling economy.
Despite this, it is Rohingya refugees who are criminalised. In June, a lower court sentenced a 28-year-old Rohingya refugee to death for possession and smuggling. When he fled while on bail, the court amateurishly interpreted it as a "sign of his guilt".
The verdict was grossly racialised, with the judge accusing the man of "destroying the country", despite the fact that the indictments carried against him would not typically warrant the death sentence. But even though the sentencing was filled with dehumanising and discriminatory language, it did not draw many condemnations nor calls to reconsider the unnecessarily draconian judgment.
Sentencing a young Rohingya who escaped genocide to death should urgently draw attention from every international human rights body and advocate. Yet the international community was silent.
Ignoring the hostile circumstances that leave Rohingya refugees with severely limited choices to earn a living is cruel. This year marked 50 years since the1971 genocide; if any nation can understand the Rohingya's plight, it's Bangladesh.
The present situation might have been different for the Rohingya if global powers had shared responsibility and worked closely with Bangladesh to develop a long-term plan for this crisis instead of leaving the state to deal with it internally.
"Despite the initial humanity shown, regrettably, Bangladesh's policies toward Rohingya refugees today almost parallel Myanmar's"
Despite the initial humanity shown, regrettably, Bangladesh's policies toward Rohingya refugees today almost parallel Myanmar's. Both sides of the river make it impossible for the Rohingya to live.
What’s more, Bangladesh recently reached out to the UN and China for assistance with repatriating the Rohingya. But is Dhaka prepared to repatriate them to their extinction in Myanmar?
Towards a sustainable future
According to a 2019 report by the International Crisis Group, Bangladesh is reluctant to face the long-term reality, instead treating this as a year-to-year problem. The report concludes that current policies of restricting movement, forced relocation, and non-integration have led to a state of desperation, despair and boredom for the refugees.
A policy shift is vital for Bangladesh to take control of a worsening situation. The solutions lie in the reversal of non-integration policies; investing in safer housing; lifting current aid restrictions; providing host community access to international aid; freedom of movement; acknowledging Rohingya identity; building solidarity between the host community and Rohingya; and lastly, creating educational and job opportunities.
Additionally, recognising the Rohingya as refugees and creating pathways for citizenship would permit them to seek international educational and job opportunities, alleviating the host country and furthering the Rohingya's cause.
These radical policy shifts may be fundamental for the country's future prosperity and would be the first of its kind globally, but Bangladesh has never been shy of revolution.
Tasnima Uddin is a legal aid paralegal. She is a co-founder for Nijjor Manush, a UK campaigning group leading the Save Brick Lane campaign, and the Nejma Collective, a group working in solidarity with incarcerated Muslims in UK prisons.
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