– Judith Herman
Deep down south there is a place crammed into a constriction between steep dirt hills and a sweaty ocean. So much water hangs in the air that mold grows on shirts, walls, blankets, computers, and the ceiling fans that haven’t been used for a time. The atmosphere gyrates between weighty suppression and bright bursts of activity. White skin, iPhones, and credit cards are judged incongruent by local stares. There are no hard laws here, and no rule that can’t be changed by the right amount of currency. Women walk with purpose in flapping colors. Their garments are inexplicably spotless despite traversing the dusty roads to a pair of fresh blue gates. Insulated within these blue gates, we work together. We sample the suffering of a persecuted people, and we do things that we hope will repair a fractured past, lighten a grim present, and fill an empty future. But we know with sad certainty that the lasting solutions are not within these gates.
Stripped of their citizenship, they were stripped of passports, police protection, political advocacy, and property ownership. When their state was taken, so was their status as humans. The events that followed cracked and splintered the souls of the people, leaving scars of trauma that would be metabolized by this community far into the untold future. Forced to labor like animals in the fields, forced to abort unborn children, homes and businesses ignited, children trafficked to other lands, raped, murdered, beaten, and tortured, the Rohingya ran. Twenty years later, many have found themselves in foreign lands living in unreasonable conditions.
The government of Bangladesh suspends the Rohingya refugees on a thin line of suffering, toying with the tipping point of international outrage. This suffering is everyday life. In the refugee camps, sheds are mislabeled houses, scraps mislabeled food, and first aid mislabeled health care. The condition of the camps reflects the priorities of a country feeling the strain of a 160 million residents and the highest population density in the world. With a country ready to burst, the Bengalis are unwilling pick up the tab for the thousands of Rohingya fording the Naf river into Bangladesh. Nayapara and Kutupalong (the two existing refugee camps) functionally serve as two vast stop signs to warn new refugees not to continue. The government has intentionally blocked many resources meant for the refugees, making it difficult for the Rohingya to carve out a substantial existence. About 15,000 refugees live in cramped conditions inside the ~75 acre camps; housing consists of metal walls with black plastic roofs, making homes feel more like hot, dark tool sheds; food is inadequate to the point that a malnutrition program is a standard intervention for many of the children; education is capped out at the 6th grade; communication with the outside world is discouraged; refugees are not legally allowed to work; and the protection of the refugees does not extend outside of the camp borders, making travel outside of camp a dangerous affair.
Living conditions in the camp are the source of a plethora of problems for the refugees; these range in severity from not being able to sleep in the summer because of the intense heat in the sheds, to being arrested by the police outside of the camp and held until their family can acquire the requested bribe money. It would be easier to swallow if there were no reasons for this suffering, but there is an incentive for the government to intentionally limit resources for the refugees. They fear that adequate resources will draw more Rohingya into an overstuffed Bangladesh; they fear what they call “pull factor”. This deprivation is a structural function meant to deter the Rohingya from seeking safety in Bangladesh – I have heard it referred to as structural violence.
New arrivals continue to cross the Naf River. These new arrivals are refused even the meager existence given to refugees in the camps. The unrecognized refugees survive by building makeshift structures of clay, sticks, and plastic on the outskirts on the official camps. Due to the “pull factor,” the government of Bangladesh will generally not allow humanitarian organizations to provide services to these makeshift camps, and have historically expelled organizations that did so.
Bangladesh and Myanmar are not the only places that the disease of statelessness follows the Rohingya. There are reports that boats of Rohingya fleeing to Thailand have been picked up by the Thai navy and sold to human traffickers. There have been other reports of the Thai navy confiscating the engines on boats full of Rohingya and pushing them back into the open sea. Many Rohingya attempt dangerous boat journeys, desperate to make it to Malaysia (a country with an Islamic majority and with better work and living opportunities than Bangladesh). One of my friends in Kutupalong camp told me that both his father and brothers made the dangerous boat journeys to Malaysia. He told me that the brokers they hired for transport stopped the boats at islands halfway through the journey and demanded more money from the families left behind in Bangladesh, in order to deliver their human cargo to the promised destination. My friend told me he was forced to sell his families ration card in the camp, forfeiting the family weekly ration of food in order to pay off the brokers and ensure his families passage to Malaysia. I have heard from other refugees that if these brokers do not receive this extra fee they have been known to call families in the camps while they torture their human cargo in order to motivate them to pay this extra fee.
Twenty years of sub-human living conditions have left hopelessness and worthlessness engrained in the camp psyche. As the days have turned to years and the years to decades, a future of freedom seems unlikely to the adults of the camp. Traditionally there are three solutions available for refugees: (1) return them to their home country when the situation is stable, (2) Integrate them into the country they fled to as refugees, (3) Send them to a third country to start new lives. These solutions are not working for the Rohingya. In recent years, Bangladesh has suspended the ability of the Rohingya to resettle in other countries and create new lives; at the same time, Bangladesh refuses them the right to become Bangladesh citizens. Serious persecution of the Rohingya is still occurring in Myanmar; returning is not an option. With all exits blocked, the Rohingya remain trapped and waiting in the two refugee camps in the deep south of Bangladesh. They do not know if they will remain there for months, years, or decades longer. The small hope that remains in the camp is for the uncertain future of the Rohingya youth, as one refugee said, “Our future has been spoiled, but what will happen to the future of our children?”
It has been nine months now since I left the Rohingya and Bangladesh, it is becoming clear that witnessing their narrative has affected me deeply. Their desperate requests, reverent stares, and stories of pain are memorialized in tattoos on my psyche. The Rohingya remind me in a nagging way that this world is not fair. Although we are all created in the image of God, we are not all privileged to be treated with that basic human value. Many of us are enabled only by time and chance to direct our futures in a system of freedom. It is tempting to hide from the reality of Rohingya life, but it is more productive to witness the narratives of those who suffer, to use our agency to advocate for them when we can, and join with them in metabolizing the suffering and trauma that they have faced.
“Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”
Thank you for witnessing