Saturday, June 15, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

The Rohingya crisis

Update : 04 Feb 2018, 04:41 PM
In 2009, a UN spokeswoman described the Rohingyas as “probably the most friendless people in the world.” Soon after, the international media collectively termed them as the “boat people.” Because boats full of refugees were being turned away from Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia where they sought asylum, and thus, being forced to either return where they came from or die at sea. Hard to decide which outcome was worse. Thankfully Bangladesh didn’t disappoint them. Refugees have been crossing over to Bangladesh for decades. But ever since the August 25, 2017 incident, the crisis has exploded at an unprecedented scale and speed. Reliable estimates put the numbers of refugees currently in Bangladesh well over 900,000. Add to that the thousands of children that are expected to be born in these already overcrowded camps. Food, water and shelter are scarce and impossible to distribute properly despite the best efforts of various relief organisations and the Bangladesh Army. On top of that, according to WHO, there is now a risk of various outbreaks like measles, diphtheria and cholera. Which sadly isn’t surprising for a place where sanitation facilities are largely unheard of and over 60% of drinking water is contaminated.
With hardly any international pressure being put on Myanmar to work out a solution, Bangladesh is fighting this battle as a lone ranger so far.
I recently moderated a talk organised by The Bombay Review and Amal Foundation, as part of The South Asian Literary Forum. The discussion was an attempt to understand this crisis from activists who have firsthand experience of working with the refugees on the ground. They shared heartbreaking tales of young men and children being killed in front of their old and incapacitated parents. Infants being thrown into fire. Girls as young as 10 being raped. Stories which sadly we have all read and heard in the media. But I also heard stories of how many of these refugees were shocked to see vehicles for the first time in their lives, or were apprehensive of using even basic makeshift toilets because they’ve never used them before, or reluctant to eat pre-cooked food or take medicines because they were afraid they had been poisoned. These stories add another dimension to their situation, speaking volumes of the squalid conditions and segregation under which they must have lived. “Will they, can they, should they return to their homes ever?” I asked. The panellists unanimously shared their doubt. If at all it happens, it could take years, if not decades. Needless to say, such a long wait for a solution can cause many problems for Bangladesh. Struggling to finance the basic necessities for the refugees, it has now started to feel the first few stings of law and order issues. Ukhia and Teknaf upzilas of Cox’s Bazaar, having absorbed the biggest impact of this influx, find themselves surrounded by refugees double the number of their residents combined. The once beautiful and peaceful terrorist town is under immense pressure. Resources and land are constrained and hackles are slowly rising. Then, there are other long-term issues to deal with – labour market volatility due to sudden and massive invasion of cheap labour, forest cover depletion to make room for the refugee shelters, and rising inflation. With hardly any international pressure being put on Myanmar to work out a solution, Bangladesh is fighting this battle as a lone ranger so far. The relief agencies as well, as someone in the panel put it, may soon hit compassion fatigue and the funds will dry up, if they haven’t already. As the discussion drew to a close, I walked away with a sense of confusion thick with hopelessness. But then I was reminded of the story one of the panellists shared, of a 77-year-old woman who walked for eight days to get to the Rohingya camps. Also in one of the many videos of the camps that AMAL Foundation shared, I could see a bunch of kids playing cricket on a makeshift pitch in the background, while the lady in the foreground lamented a lack of food and clothing. Somehow those images lingered with me. It could be a silver lining I’m forcing myself to see, to superficially abate my melancholy.Perhaps. But thinking of them did give me a small but significant sense of comfort, knowing that human resilience, just like the universe, knows no bounds. Perhaps it is this resilience and strength that would show these refugees through one of the darkest hours of modern human history.Radhika Tabrez is a writer. In 2016, she won the Muse India – Satish Verma Young Writer Award for her debut novel, In the Light of Darkness. The now Dhaka-based writer headed the Dhaka edition of the South Asian Literary Forum, dubbed “No country for lost men: A discussion on the Rohingya crisis,” and organised by The Bombay Review and Amal Foundation, which was held on January 7 at the EMK Centre in Dhanmondi.
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