Five years have passed since Rohingya refugees fled the brutal genocidal campaign led by Myanmar military in Rakhine in 2017 and settled in the camps in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Over the years, literally thousands of pieces, op-eds and commentaries have been written on their plight in the local and international news outlets, condemning the bloody crackdown, addressing issues they are facing in the Bangladesh camps, recommending solutions and calling on international community to help Rohingya return home, yet Rohingyas continue to live in the sprawling makeshift homes, fully dependent on aid – and without any durable solutions in sight.
Over past five years, their lives in the camps have been time and again ravaged by natural disasters, from deadly floods and landslides to devastating fires. Though the Bangladeshi host community set a great example for all humanity in 2017 by welcoming and showing love and solidarity, they are becoming hostile to the refugees’ long stay in Bangladesh. Violence in the camps has often been rampant and a daily experience for the refugees. A recent report published in Prothom Alo says 115 murders occurred in the camps in five years. I visit camps on a daily basis. In my experience, not a single week goes without any incident of killing and violence in the camps.
Every year there have been many reports of Rohingya refugees – including significant number of women and children – embarking on perilous sea voyages in hopes of better lives abroad.
Many armed groups are active in the camps that have often been engaged in various crimes like kidnapping, drug smuggling, extortion, abusing women and girls and killing each other and establishing control – adding more trauma and distress to the lives of the innocent refugees in the camps. There is no strong social protection and formal justice systems and children are growing up with almost no formal education. Sexual and gender-based violence are a daily occurrences. As a result, increasingly refugees are becoming desperate to go home that has been reflected through demonstrations on the world refugee day this year.
Every year there have been many reports of Rohingya refugees – including significant number of women and children – embarking on perilous sea voyages in hopes of better lives abroad. The latest one appeared in May this year where at least 17 were found dead as a boat carrying Rohingya refugees sank at the Bay of Bengal while attempting to reach Malaysia. In 2020, I closely worked for some of the boat survivors who were kept in the quarantine centers after rescuing from sea in Cox’s Bazar. I was shocked at hearing their horrific and disturbing experiences and seeing the children as young as 5 to 10 years old among the survivors.
On 25 of August, on the fifth anniversary of the Rohingya crisis, BBC Bangla run a video clip where Anowar Shah, a-18-year old Rohingya youth, shares his experience of living in the camps. He was 13 and a student of class 7 when he fled violence in Myanmar in 2017 and came to Bangladesh. After five years, he is now 18. His only job in the camp is to eat and sleep and sometimes to collect water and rations. There are thousands like Anowar in the camps living a life in limbo and getting frustrated about their future. Children are majority in the camps – more than 52 per cent. Every year an estimated 30,000 children are being born in the camps.
Being a humanitarian worker, I work for children in the camps, I often talk to the youths and children that I meet. I have found them all frustrated about their future and hopelessness is growing among them. Child protection concerns like child labor, child marriages, children going missing, child trafficking and children being used for drug trafficking are on the rise.
The UN Secretary-General António Guterres on the fifth anniversary of the Rohingya crisis has called on the international community to find durable and inclusive solutions to the Rohingya crisis, stressing that it has been critical need now. Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights visited Rohingya camps in Bangladesh last month. She consoled refugees saying to ‘wait for repatriation as conditions are not safe now in Myanmar’.
While safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable repatriation is the ultimate solution to the crisis, five years have gone in waiting for that. Still it seems dim as those responsible for the atrocities came to power through the military coup in Myanmar earlier last year. Political instability, conflict and displacement have only intensified in Myanmar since then. On top of that, politically and economically our world is becoming divided than ever before, especially after Ukraine war, making the prospects for Rohingya repatriation more complicated.
Bangladesh has increased security presence and response mechanisms to the criminal activities in the camps since Mohib Ullah, the prominent non-violent Rohingya civilian leader, was killed last year. Recently it is also engaging military to counter the crimes in the camps. But only better response mechanisms are not enough to ensure peace and security in the long term. Preventive measures and meaningful engagements for the children and youths like skill development, expanding provision of formal education and some livelihood opportunities are needed to get them engaged and give them hopes.
As years are going by, the crisis has become protracted, international financial aid for Rohingya is diminishing and political climate towards Rohingya is worsening. In the past five years, the Joint Response Plans (JRPs) for the Rohingya refugees have been made for only single year since Bangladesh is reluctant to long-term planning as its top priority has been repatriation and also it may lead to local integration which Bangladesh cannot afford given that it’s one of the most densely populated countries in the world struggling with poverty, unemployment and the looming climate crisis.
After five years now, single-year planning is less likely to bring the positive changes that are needed now. Given the situation, finding a durable solution or at least a short-term plan for them has become the need of the hour – to ensure peace and security in the camps and to save a generation of Rohingya children from getting lost.
* Parvez Uddin Chowdhury is a humanitarian worker and independent researcher. He writes on development, refugee and climate crisis. Email: [email protected]