AASHNA MALPANI WRITES– Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, victims of Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing, are packed into refugee camps just 20 miles from the city of Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh. They are social pariahs – portrayed as criminals by national media and denied access to proper medical care and just about everything else.
“The average day of refugees looks like a bird in a cage. They face various difficulties in Cox’s Bazar because they aren’t allowed to move freely except in refugee camp areas,” says Mohammad Rafique, President of the Arakan Rohingya Youth Association (ARYA), from his office in Bangladesh.
He describes in detail how identifying as Rohingya—Rafique himself is one— is “considered a crime.” That’s why he, like many others, hide under the label of ‘Bangladeshi’ to avoid harassment and assault by local forces. “All the Rohingya people and their offspring pass their days in mental agony here if they are accused of being Rohingya,” Rafique laments.
The Bangladesh government has also imposed cellphone bans on the Rohingya for “security reasons,” so little information leaves the camps. Ko Ko Naing, a founding member of the Los Angeles Rohingya Association (LARA), says this enables “the Bangladeshi media to take advantage and circulate fake news, like when they said some Rohingya boys raped one of their girls. This lie instigated a huge riot, and further angered the public.”
Prices, Jobs, And Discontentment
The tragedy began after 2017, when more than 7,00,000 Rohingyas crossed over into Bangladesh in fear of their lives. The influx led to higher prices on commodities, with demand exceeding supply, and affected the day-to-day lives of locals. While it once cost 5,000 taka ($59) to rent a 3b/2ba apartment, it now costs 15,000-20,000 taka ($176-235), Rafique tells me.
In addition, the many day laborers in and around Cox’s Bazar are suffering significant wage cuts because the Rohingyas will work for less; daily wages have dropped from 500 taka a day ($6) to about 300 taka ($3.5).
There has also been rising concern with regard to other forms of employment. Because of the Rohingya crisis, several NGOs have set up camp in Bangladesh and are constantly in need of assistance. As they pay better, local vendors, traders, and teachers have closed up shop to join forces with aid groups, leaving marketplaces and schools empty.
Olivia Nightingale, the Program Associate for Civil and Political Rights at the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), explains: “Their (Bangladesh’s) local teachers are being poached to work in the camps by NGOs who can pay substantially more than local institutions can. As a result of this, we’re seeing girls and host communities not going to school because their parents are worried about a lack of education and faculty.”
The Floating Island, Vasan Char
With the Rohingya resisting repatriation to Myanmar, in mortal fear of returning to the Rakhine State, they face another challenge: relocation to Vasan Char, located in the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. Approved by Bangladesh Prime Minister Hasina Sheikh, this measure is said to be an attempt to stem the tide of refugees flooding Cox’s Bazar.
The island of Vasan Char, mainly composed of heaps of silt, is highly vulnerable to natural disasters such as cyclones and floods; it cannot safely accommodate thousands of refugees. Human rights activists from around the world have condemned this location as a giant “detention center.” Despite international outrage, Bangladesh has been investing millions of dollars and working with both British and Chinese engineers to make the space habitable.
AJWS program associate Nightingale has assessed the expedited project as the Burmese and Bangladeshi governments trying to wash their hands of the “Rohingya problem.” She goes on to tell me, “Given the strains on local host communities and the resources themselves, there’s an emphasis on both sides for the Rohingya to resettle back in Rakhine state under whatever terms the Bangladeshi government and Burmese governments agree to.”
What Can We Do?
While the Rohingya population is far safer in Bangladesh, where they can escape mass killings, rapes and arbitrary arrests in Myanmar, they’re still denied many fundamental human rights.
According to Nightingale, several regulatory “international players,” including the United Nations (UN) and the International Criminals Court (ICC), have suffered at the hands of the Trump administration, resulting in a significant decline in global mechanisms for justice, human rights, and accountability. “In many ways, the efficacy of the UN has really been greatly weakened as a result of not just this (U.S.) regime, but similar regimes that have come to power recently. We’re seeing that even referrals to the International Criminal Court don’t seem to have the same value that maybe they once did,” she says.
Speaking on behalf of his organization, LARA founder Naing assigns some blame to other Western countries as well, suggesting they need to “do more than sanctions.” He wants to see “an international peacekeeping force that not only pushes for non-violence but also punishes governments. They need to issue a warning of military action against Myanmar, and then bring down the central government.” He proposes that locals around the world encourage their own governments to try to help resolve the Rohingya crisis.
Rafique promises, “When judgment day comes, and if the Almighty Allah conducts another hashar (end) for us, we will ask ‘What was our ultimate crime?’” It might just be the tragic odyssey of the Rohingya.