“What will happen to my child?” “
– I first met six-year-old Amina in Kutupalong refugee camp in 2019. I couldn’t help but notice the sad image of life in the camps that she portrays: a child alone in a corner, playing with a pair of matchboxes instead of a toy. Later, Amina’s mother told me that she was hiding under the bed when the Burmese army surrounded their home in Rakhine. She saw them kill her father and grandfather and went into hiding while they gang raped her mother. She hadn’t said a word to anyone outside of her family since then.
Amina’s mother also spoke about how lost she felt now that her parents and husband were dead. She lamented, “What will happen to my child? During visits to refugee camps, I have heard this refrain over and over again from Rohingya parents: “What will happen to my child?”
I started with this story because right after the refugee exodus from Myanmar in 2017 – the result of military operations described as a “classic example of ethnic cleansing” by the UN chief of human rights of the time – there was much more interest in Bangladesh regarding the human faces of the Rohingya who fled here. Stories of brutal killings, rapes and mass burnt villages have stirred something in the hearts of a nation inclined to empathize with persecuted populations. However, after four years of hosting nearly a million refugees and feeling the strain on our local resources, that empathy quickly turned to refugee fatigue and often outright aggression.
If we trust the mainstream and social media, we are no longer interested in hearing the stories of religious and racial persecution of this minority. Instead, we have fallen into the habit of only talking about broad generalizations. In such a large and diverse population, the stories of courage and action – Rohingya social workers teaching women about birth control, elders imparting their language to young people, young volunteers engaging in community service – these stories have no interest either. . The words of the day when it comes to refugees are “crime”, “drugs” and, of course, “repatriation”.
The final buzzword is one thing we can all at least agree on: Despite what many may think, most Rohingya refugees have no desire to spend their entire lives confined to camps, which are also improved. whatever their conditions. A common accusation you often hear against refugees in Bangladesh is that they lead a life of “comfort” and much prefer living here “for free” rather than returning home. These voices have grown even louder in the wake of Bhashan Char, where resettled refugees have better housing and facilities (although the recent deaths of three Rohingya children amid an outbreak of diarrhea on the island shows that not is not as good as it looks).
While there are certainly marginalized pockets of our own citizens who would consider a daily ration of rice and lentils and a plastic tarp over their heads as a luxury, I can guarantee that people who repeat these xenophobic tropes are not there. one of them. And this perception of refugees as free riders completely erases their identity and personal history. Do we really believe that the Rohingya people would choose to live the rest of their lives surrounded by barbed wire, without a livelihood, without education and without freedom of movement, a stone’s throw from their homeland, just for the sake of having shelter and “free” rations?
There is no doubt that Bangladesh has acted magnanimously when it comes to welcoming refugees. And at almost every event held in refugee camps, such as those held annually on Rohingya Genocide Remembrance Day, this gratitude to the Bangladeshi authorities has been expressed by the Rohingya. Which makes it all the more depressing when legitimate questions are asked about their current status – such as the right to education of over 450,000 Rohingya children in the camps who are denied access to basic education accredited – our general reaction was to shrug our shoulders and say “that’s not our problem”.
Bangladesh has repeatedly stated that it cannot take responsibility for Rohingya refugees on its own, and the authorities are right to say so. But by failing to stand up for their cause and create legitimate platforms where refugees’ voices can be amplified, we have erred in judgment – because at first glance the rest of the world, instead of taking our place, has also washed up. their hands of the “refugee problem”.
At the last G7 meeting, world leaders gathered to discuss the pandemic, climate change and security concerns – there was hardly any mention of the 26.4 million refugees globally ( UNHCR estimate from mid-2020). Earlier this month, The Guardian reported that 42% cuts to British foreign aid would leave around 70,000 people without health services and 100,000 without water in Cox’s Bazar, affecting not only refugees but communities as well. reception. Aid to Rohingya refugees is declining year on year, with the latest Joint Response Plan receiving only 35% of the $ 943 million needed for 2021. Again, these funds are being allocated not only to meet the needs of nearly ‘one million refugees, but also for nearly half a million vulnerable Bangladeshis in Cox’s Bazar as well.
Would things have been different if we had made a different rhetoric – if, say, instead of saying that the Rohingyas have to come back and the rest is not our concern, we had come out in favor of a comprehensive solution involving humane camp conditions and donor investment in training and education of refugees for third country settlement, as well as dignified and safe repatriation to Myanmar? Could we have used our moral authority as the country with the largest Rohingya refugee population to remind other countries of their responsibilities, such as Japan and Saudi Arabia, which the Norwegian Refugee Council says are guilty? to welcome the fewest refugees despite their the best way? Bangladesh’s presence in the region is no longer minor, as evidenced by the recent financial assistance we have sent to Sri Lanka and the medical aid offered to Nepal and India. Could we not therefore have shown this same leadership and this same diplomatic authority by denouncing the military coup in Myanmar and by urging other countries to do the same?
Earlier this month, ASEAN officials met with the junta leader but failed to find a solution to the Myanmar crisis or even condemn the illegal takeover by the military. Around the same time, Myanmar’s shadow civilian government made a landmark announcement, pledging to change the country’s constitution and grant citizenship to the Rohingya if they regain power in the military. With which of these parties do our long-term interests coincide? We need to think carefully about this while reflecting on our future diplomatic strategy on refugees.
The solution to the refugee crisis is not easy, but it will become even more difficult if Bangladesh and other refugee-hosting countries do not play a leading role in engaging the international community and ensuring that it does so. that donor support for the Rohingya does not continue to decline. And to play that role, we must end the demonization of refugees and see them for what they are: not picnics, not criminals, but a large and diverse population struggling to survive and build a better life. for future generations after being driven from their native land.
To mark World Refugee Day this year, Save the Children released a report revealing that more than 700,000 Rohingya children across Asia are deprived of their most basic rights. On this day, let us remember that we as a nation are well aware that people can experience the most desperate situations, but what they cannot live without is hope. The Rohingya refugees are not there to snatch bread out of the mouths of ordinary Bangladeshis, but for the most humane reasons, as the question often repeated in the camps shows: “What will happen to my child?”
Shuprova Tasneem is a member of the Daily Star editorial team. His Twitter handle is @shuprovatasneem.
This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh