The Rohingya conundrum
KUTUPALAONG REFUGEE CAMP, Bangladesh — “I love to play football,” Abdul, 12, tells me as I gaze at the vast expanse of bamboo-and-tarpaulin shelters in this monsoon countryside. Inquisitive, and perhaps eager to practice his limited English, he shadows me throughout my field visit to his community.
On the surface, Abdul is an ordinary boy, eager to play sports and roam around. But underneath his cheerful disposition, he is a child without a home. Alongside hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, his family had to flee Myanmar in 2017, when the military embarked on what the Human Rights Watch calls a “large-scale campaign of ethnic cleansing” — with reports of people being massacred, gang-raped and burned alive. The refugees have since lived in the camps, relying on aid agencies for food and basic needs.
The government of predominantly-Buddhist Myanmar has offered to repatriate some of the mostly-Muslim refugees, but no one has accepted the offer from a government that has refused to recognize them as citizens or acknowledge the atrocities they have endured. Besides, for many whose villages had been burned, there is nowhere to go back to.
To a great extent, Bangladesh has accommodated the “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals” — now numbering 1.1 million — despite its limited resources and very high population density. “Do you think any Western nation will do this?” asks one camp coordinator, reminding me that the country has welcomed, or at least tolerated, the ebb and flow of refugees since the 1970s.
The refugees, however, are increasingly perceived as a drain in resources and viewed as a social and economic threat. Media reports highlight some refugees’ involvement in drugs and crime, as well as high birth rates in the camps, further reinforcing people’s negative attitudes. For its part, the government has expressed frustration over the inaction of the international community, including major geopolitical actors like China, Russia, India and the US. It has also accused some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) of dissuading the refugees from returning.
These sentiments form part of the context underlying a new policy barring mobile phone access in the camps, and a new pronouncement that further migration will not be allowed.
The refugees, too, are growing impatient. Two weeks ago, tens of thousands attended a peaceful gathering to mark two years since “Genocide Day” and reiterate their demands for security, justice and citizenship. They may prefer to stay in the camps rather than return to Myanmar, or move to an island where the government wants to relocate 100,000 of them, but the lack of freedom, poor quality of life (i.e. limited water and electricity), and being at the mercy of a foreign government are surely taking their toll.
Many children, moreover, are growing up without proper education, despite the efforts of some international organizations and NGOs. Abdul may be happy to be in the football field, but he deserves to be in a classroom.
Meanwhile, social changes are taking place not just in the camps — where more and more “temporary” structures are being built — but also in the host communities. Once laid-back country roads have turned muddy and congested thanks to the daily parade of food trucks and SUVs. Prices have risen. Because of so many jobs available from donor agencies, young people are losing their motivation to study.
As with any conflict, the Rohingya conundrum is immensely complex, and there are myriad narratives one can tell. Out of a million people, there may be those who resort to terrorism and crime. Out of the hundreds of NGOs, there may be those who contribute to the impasse. And out of the states involved, everyone will have political interests that underline — or override — their moral impulses.
Nonetheless, it is clear to me that the main responsibility lies with the Myanmar government, whose exclusionary policies and violent acts against the Rohingya are at the heart of this humanitarian crisis. When will Asean leaders have the moral courage to call out their member-state? And when will the international community take a stronger stand against what the UN experts have called a genocide?
The response to these questions will determine the future of children like Abdul, and the fate of an entire people.
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