“All we want is for our rights to be protected, equal to other people,” Mohamed, a 27-year-old Rohingya man, told me as we sat in a crowded shelter in Kutupalong Camp in southeast Bangladesh.
Kutupalong is the world’s largest refugee camp, home to more than 600,000 Rohingya who fled ethnic cleansing in Myanmar’s Rakhine State in August 2017. Mohamed has lived in refugee camps for his entire life. He was born in Bangladesh in 1992, soon after his parents fled an earlier wave of persecution in Myanmar. But at the age of 27, Mohamed is not recognised as a citizen in Myanmar and has no official refugee status in Bangladesh. That means he is confined to the area around Cox’s Bazar, a city near the border with Myanmar where close to one million Rohingya refugees now shelter in sprawling, overcrowded camps. When Mohamed tries to travel further afield, whether it’s in search of work or healthcare, he is turned back at military checkpoints.
It’s high time for the Bangladesh government to transition from the emergency response phase and focus on finding more sustainable solutions.
Let’s be clear: Mohamed cannot return to Myanmar any time soon. The situation in Rakhine State has not improved, and there has been no accountability for the appalling human rights violations which erupted in August 2017. More than 100,000 Rohingya are forced to live in squalid internally displaced persons camps. They are not recognized as citizens of Myanmar and have very few rights in the country. Mohamed told me that the Rohingya “all dream of going back” but said that that unless major changes happen in Myanmar, “we would just be chased away again.” Other refugees I spoke to echoed this sentiment.
Responding to the arrival of 700,000 Rohingya refugees in only a few months was an enormous challenge for Bangladesh. Refugees are effusive in their gratitude to the Bangladeshi government and the local population for allowing them to stay, aware that many other countries are less generous. But two years on, people are still living under emergency response measures which do not allow them to rebuild their lives in dignity. For example, the Bangladesh government places restrictions on the materials people can use to build shelters. This means refugees are living in makeshift shelters which offer no protection from monsoon floods or soaring temperatures.
It’s high time for the Bangladesh government to transition from the emergency response phase and focus on finding more sustainable solutions. To do this, it will need the support of the international community, and the input of the refugee population.
Access to education for Rohingya children and youth is one of the most pressing human rights concerns. More than 50% of refugees in the camps are under 18-years-old, but the Bangladeshi government has refused to authorise schools with recognised curricula in the camps – believing education would dissuade refugees from returning to Myanmar. In January, the government barred refugees from attending local schools outside the camps as well. Mohamed was forced to stop attending a nearby technical school, where he was pursuing a computer course.
The only education facilities available in the camps are “Child Friendly Spaces”, which cater to younger children with very basic classes and activities. Several teens told Amnesty International that they felt they were watching their futures disappear.
Meanwhile, concerns continue to mount about what may come next. The Bangladeshi government has proposed relocating at least 100,000 refugees to Basan Char, a previously uninhabited low-lying island in the monsoon-prone Bay of Bengal which has no infrastructure and takes three hours to reach by boat. And on 6 August, the government announced plans to return 3,450 Rohingya to Myanmar, causing widespread panic. It is unclear whether this will go ahead. The Bangladesh and Myanmar governments have made similar announcements in the past, then backed down when it became clear that no refugees were willing to return.
But what is clear is that multilateral efforts to pursue justice, accountability and meaningful reforms in Myanmar are stalling. None of the proposals currently on the table take the human rights of the Rohingya into account; they don’t even consider what the Rohingya themselves want.
Taken together, these factors leave many in the camps feeling trapped and despondent. As Mohamed put it, “Our lives are not moving forward in these camps, which feel like a prison.”
The Rohingya people have been systematically denied their human rights for generations. Now that many are, temporarily at least, safe from the killing and attacks which they fled, it’s high time their needs as human beings were taken seriously. The Bangladeshi government and international community need to work together to ensure the Rohingya can live fulfilling, dignified lives where they have access to the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.
Alex Neve is secretary general for Amnesty International Canada.