Sitting in a teashop in Kutupalong megacamp, Bibi Jan tugs on her sleeve. She’s covering up scars inflicted during the largest-ever episode of violence against the Rohingya, in August 2017. She tells us of the events that forced her to flee to Bangladesh: her two brothers were killed, she herself was stabbed, and her village was razed to the ground.
A marginalised ethnic minority from Rakhine state, the Rohingya have in recent decades been subject to mounting targeted state exclusion and persecution. Two years ago, news of Myanmar’s campaign of violence against the Rohingya dominated the headlines. Since then, very little progress has been made to address the lack of legal status for the Rohingya in the region, or to address the underlying causes of the Rohingyas’ exclusion in Myanmar.
To date no meaningful solutions have been offered to the Rohingya, who have been pushed to the margins of society in virtually all the countries they have fled to. In Bangladesh, over 912,000 Rohingya still live in the same basic bamboo structures as when they first arrived, face travel and work restrictions, and remain wholly reliant on humanitarian aid. Many of the illnesses MSF treats at its clinics in Cox’s Bazar are a result of the poor living conditions that the Rohingya endure, with poor access to clean latrines or water.
When we left Myanmar, we didn’t take anything. So we need everything: clothes, food, medicine, light, ventilation, water, everything.
- Bibi Jan with her five-year-old son in Kutupalong Megacamp
MSF continues to treat tens of thousands of patients a month, performing over 1.3 million consultations between August 2017-June 2019. With children unable to attend formal schooling, future generations are deprived of an opportunity to improve their situation. “I want to send my children to school but I don’t have enough money and we can’t leave the camp, so it’s difficult to plan a future for our children,” Bibi Jan says. “If we worked, we wouldn’t need rations, we could survive on our own.”
In their own words
Suleiman is an MSF watchman living in Nget Chaung village, central Rakhine State. He, along with 9,000 other Rohingya Muslims here, is denied freedom of movement, forcibly confined to the village and the adjacent internment camp, with poor living conditions and very limited access to basic services.
The restrictions on movement for the Rohingya in central Rakhine State followed outbreaks of violence between the Rohingya and Rakhine communities in 2012. Today, some 128,000 Rohingya and other Muslims are forcibly detained in camps or camp-like settings in Central Rakhine. Before these restrictions were imposed, Suleiman was a teacher, travelling to different townships and cities to provide English and Burmese classes in mosques.
“I was born in Nget Chaung village and my entire family lives here. My wife and I have eight children and I work as a watchman for MSF’s medical clinic. MSF arrived in Nget Chaung just after the crisis in 2012; they started working here just seven days after we were attacked.
When I was a child I went to Sittwe for my education. But when I was 15, we just didn’t have the money for me to keep going to school. So after completing my primary school education, I came home and ended up living in the mosque. I began to make a living as a teacher, running classes in English and Burmese for the children and adults coming to the mosque.
We hold our frustration inside because we cannot speak out.
I was working in another village nearby when the crisis began in 2012 – I came home quickly and things were tense. One night we woke up at about two in the morning; we could hear people outside. We got dressed silently and crept outside. It was dark and we couldn’t see well, but there were a lot of people who weren’t from our village; we knew we had to get away. We used the houses for cover, ducking behind things so that we wouldn’t be seen, then we ran. We ran a long way away and found places to hide. When we looked back at the village, we saw big fires. We decided to stay where we were until early the next morning, then we walked back. When we got there, many of our houses were gone – they had been burnt, my house included. All our cows and goats were gone too. A police officer came to see what had happened. He looked around and saw the damage and then he left.
For a long time after that we lived in tents nearby. It took almost two years to rebuild everything. Soon after our houses were burnt, some soldiers came to speak with us. They told us that we could stay and live here but that we couldn’t go anywhere else. Some soldiers stayed for a long time, controlling the area, and more than a year after that, the police set up a checkpoint.
We own nothing. I wish people could look at us and see us for who we are. I just want people to know who the Rohingya are.
There aren’t any real opportunities for employment here; there are hardly any fish to catch either. Because there’s so little trade, we can’t buy the things we want. We can only buy things like fish or prawns, though sometimes people from nearby Rakhine villages come and sell us food. People here are sad, they are frustrated that they can’t go anywhere or do anything more. We hold our frustration inside because we cannot speak out – there are no opportunities for that. We cannot even travel to the next township, so people keep everything inside, bottled up. There’s a camp here too, next to the village. Lots of Rohingya Muslims from different villages live here now. Because there are people from so many different villages living here now, there are some tensions – sometimes there is aggression and even sexual violence between communities. People live very close to one another, without much space.
The Rohingya are like other ethnicities in Myanmar – we just want to live here. We just want our freedom, to have our own livelihoods and to sleep at night without worrying. The longyi (a skirt-like piece of cloth worn by women and men in Myanmar) is a symbol of Myanmar, and all the ethnicities of Myanmar have their own pattern, but not us. We wear the longyi, but we have no pattern. We own nothing. I wish people could look at us and see us for who we are. I just want people to know who the Rohingya are.”
Myanmar: “We hold our frustration inside”
The situation facing the Rohingya still in Myanmar is similarly bleak. In 1982, a citizenship law rendered them effectively stateless, and in recent years they have been stripped of even more of their rights, ranging from civic inclusion, the right to education, marriage, family planning, to freedom of movement and access to healthcare.
In 2012 violence between the Rohingya and Rakhine communities left entire villages razed. Since then, some 128,000 Rohingya and Kaman Muslims in central Rakhine have lived in overcrowded and squalid displacement camps. Denied freedom of movement and jobs, as well as access to basic services, they likewise rely entirely on humanitarian assistance.
We have to step up and ensure that they aren’t just getting food and water but a future too.
Arunn Jegan, MSF Emergency Coordinator in Bangladesh
“There aren’t any real opportunities for employment here; there are hardly any fish to catch either. Because there’s so little trade, we can’t buy the things we want,” says Suleiman, a Rohingya living in Nget Chaung – an area where some 9,000 people live. “People here are sad, they are frustrated that they can’t go anywhere or do anything more. We hold our frustration inside because we cannot speak out – there are no opportunities for that. We cannot even travel to the next township, so people keep everything inside, bottled up.”
An estimated 550,000 to 600,000 Rohingya remain across Rakhine State. Their already difficult lives have become harder as they and other communities suffer the consequences of a worsening conflict between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine armed group.
In their own words
Metun (name changed on request) is a Rohingya refugee in the Kutupalong-Balukhali megacamp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. He previously lived in Rakhine, working for NGOs there. He now volunteers with NGOs in the sprawling refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. Here he shares his hopes and fears with MSF.
“I’ve been in Bangladesh since 11 September 2017 – I remember the exact date we arrived. I fled with my wife and four children.
We were always threatened in Rakhine. Compared to Myanmar, Bangladesh still feels like paradise. But the conditions here are inhumane. You have to stay in a small room, the toilets are shared, and you live under a plastic sheet with no ventilation. You aren’t allowed to go anywhere, and you can’t work like Bangladeshi people.
If someone doesn’t like you, they can ask a gang to kill you.
In general, the camps are less safe than they were before. Because there is no way to make money, no education and no job opportunities, people are turning to illegal activities to get by. Now there are some extremist groups who kidnap, blackmail and rob people. Unmarried women and children are targeted by human traffickers. If someone doesn’t like you, they can ask a gang to kill you. People with small shops or who volunteer with NGOs are able to make some money, and that turns them into targets.
Right now, people are really worried about rumours that there will be a fence put around the camp. If this happens, people won’t be allowed to move from block to block; you will only be allowed to move to other blocks if you show your ID. Mentally, people will not be well. Fighting and unrest in the camps will only increase.
When it comes to returning to Myanmar, people here are worried that it will be the same as in 1992, when the Rohingya were forced back. We know the situation now is not like 1992 but people are still worried. What would we do? A couple of days ago I was in contact with people still in Rakhine. They are watching us here in Bangladesh closely. The collective fate of the Rohingya is in our hands, they say. If we get justice here, they feel we will get our rights there. But if we return like before, we will all be in danger. It was difficult to hear that. We don’t feel safe. We hope the Bangladeshi government will not put this pressure on us.
The collective fate of the Rohingya is in our hands.
Many countries did not even hear about the Rohingya before this influx. People did not know about the violence that was happening to us before August 2017. We were not allowed to use smart phones in Myanmar, so we weren’t able to communicate about our situation with the world. This time last year, many NGOs and media were talking about our fate. Now the attention has diminished and maybe next year the interest will be even less. If it continues this way, it is possible that in a few years the Bangladeshi government will get bored and send us back. We keep hoping that the international community keeps an interest. We know these things takes time to resolve.
Being Rohingya is an ethnicity, but in Myanmar they call us kala, or illegal migrants or Bengali, as if we are from Bangladesh. The Myanmar government has asked people to apply for the National Verification Card (NVC). After having this card for six months, they investigate you to determine whether you get citizenship or not. The first question on this form is: “When did you come from Bangladesh”, followed by “Why did you come” and “Who was the chairman in your village in Bangladesh?” How can we answer these questions? It means they are automatically putting us in a cage.
We are destroying our children’s generation. Children should be in school, but there are no schools for them.
This is why people are not willing to go back. If we go back, we will be forced to go through the NVC process, be forced to apply for citizenship. It’s like putting your legs in the fire. You have to be able to show identity cards from both sides of your family for three generations – how can you keep ID cards for three generations? Especially when the Myanmar government asked for many documents to be returned to them in the past. We have deliberately been left with no documentation whatsoever. When they burnt the villages, what remaining documentation people had was burnt too.
I do not anticipate being able to return within five years, so I am preparing myself to be here for longer. If we have to stay here for a long time, I would like the Rohingya to benefit from education, security, refugee status, better access to secondary healthcare, and employment. Ultimately, we are seeking justice. We want the right to citizenship, free movement, education, secondary healthcare, and freedom of religion, just like other groups in Myanmar. We are destroying our children’s generation. Children should be in school, but there are no schools for them. I look at my children and other children – the future generation. If they stay five or six years here, they will be unable or unwilling to go back to school. The longer we stay here, the more children will be lost.”
Malaysia: Pushed into further precarity
The Rohingya likewise remain in limbo in Malaysia, where they have been fleeing to over the past 30 years. There, lack of legal status pushes them and other refugee and asylum seekers into an increasingly precarious situation. Unable to work legally, they often disappear into Malaysia’s urban black market economy, where they are vulnerable to exploitation, debt bondage or work accidents. Walking down the street or even seeking medical care can result in refugees being sent to detention centres or extorted.
Iman Hussein, 22, fled Rakhine in 2015, spending time in Thailand before arriving in Penang, Malaysia. Like many refugees, he has eked out a living by working in Penang’s booming construction industry. His employer hasn’t paid him his salary for the past 10 weeks, but says he has no choice but to keep working as he lives on site and would be destitute if he left.
“Over the past two years, very little real effort has been made to address the underlying causes of the discrimination the Rohingya face and enable them to return home safely,” says Benoit de Gryse, MSF operations manager for Myanmar and Malaysia. “If the Rohingya are to have any chance of a better future, the international community must redouble its diplomatic efforts with Myanmar and champion greater legal recognition for an incredibly disempowered group.”