At some point, they will need to earn a living
“Nobodies” are staying in the camps in Cox’s Bazar. Yet, the aggregate number of such nobodies in the country’s southeast corner exceeds one million.
Collectively as well, they are “nobody” that could protect self-interests, either at home or worldwide.
Dhaka doesn’t want to offer the people from Myanmar the formal status of refugees, though they have been given refuge in the Bangladesh territory. The government of their home country doesn’t recognize the Rohingya as being Myanmar nationals.
Some organizations working in the camps are also not comfortable using the words “Rohingya” (the ethnic identity of the people themselves) and “refugee” as their status.
The act of repression of a whole community by one country and the cautious hospitality to the helpless by the other are treated in a similar manner.
So, the Rohingya refugees are rather “safely” called displaced people. To the Bangladeshis, these Myanmar people are sojourners, but some of them have been living in Cox’s Bazar for two years and some for more than two decades.
The truth that is often avoided in introducing these people is their religious identity, a key reason for the “ethnic cleansing,” a term that earned notoriety during the Balkan war of the 1990s. For being Muslims, the Rohingya have simultaneously received sympathy from some countries and negligence from others.
The Myanmar-made crisis in the Rakhine state since the 1970s has compelled the poor neighbour -- of Muslim majority population -- to host the uprooted people, for an indefinite period.
In Muslim culture, however, someone is considered a mehman (guest) or musafir (traveller) for staying in a distant place no more than three days. Even a stranger is then supposed to do every chore of normal life.
Since the harsh reality of today is that the Rohingya Muslim people are living here with no possibility of immediate repatriation in sight, it’s neither honourable for them nor affordable for a densely populated country such as Bangladesh to spoon-feed them for years.
When their status as refugees in Bangladesh and settlement in other countries are also not assured, why don’t the stakeholders of the Rohingya crisis response process, especially the government and the United Nations, come to an agreement that they need livelihoods?
It’s hard to anticipate the consequence of keeping thousands of men and women in a patch of land, without work, for months and years, but the loss of potential of each individual, including economic impacts on their own lives, are at least understandable. Officially, a basic question is not being asked: How will they sustain their lives unless they have the scope to earn?
While focusing on the bigger picture of the atrocities the Rohingya faced from Myanmar security forces, Dhaka is missing the point of the ultimate impact of their prolonged stay in the camps or their potential dispersion here and there.
For giving shelter to thousands of refugees from Syria, German Chancellor Angela Merkel didn’t win a Nobel Prize, except being appreciated for showing magnanimity at a time when anti-immigration sentiment was running high across Europe and America.
Her country has still found some technically sound and educated people who just need to learn the German language to get employed in relevant sectors. The Syrian refugees are not a burden for their host country, an economic superpower.
The Rohingya issue is different. The host government, initially hesitant in allowing their entry into Bangladesh, is mindful of national compulsions to repatriate them. They are kept in camps that form the largest concentration of “displaced persons” on Earth at the moment.
The UN and other major actors in the Rohingya response, too, are yet to make any visible progress in ensuring their dignified return to their motherland or productive stay in Bangladesh.
As long as they are not provided with opportunity to work and earn, they will continue to lead poor lives in unhealthy living conditions, depending only on subsistence. The youth who left behind genocide at home and are living in flimsy houses with no certainty of their future may turn more desperate.
Knowledgeable of the life in Rohingya camps, an NGO leader told this author that their stay in clusters may be an advantage for engaging them in productive activities: “The government can assign national NGOs under the mediation of the United Nations to provide skills-based education to Rohingya men and women and place order of such work from the businesses. The country cannot afford to keep them idle by feeding them free of cost forever.”
Until the issue is settled, the international community may offer assistance for developing business and creating employment for the Rohingya, a process that will save and brighten their own face.
Some of the Rohingya are informally working, coming out of the camps, distorting the market for the local labourers who are not entitled to food assistance unlike the Rohingya people.
Many who frequently visit the area suspect that there may be increased hostilities between the locals and the Rohingya if they are not engaged in jobs inside the camp area.
The policy-makers have reason to be nervous about what they would do with these people, should the aid for them dry up some day. The “nobodies” have chances to disappear from the camps, if in dire need.
Khawaza Main Uddin is a journalist and winner of UN MDG Award, Developing Asia Journalism Award (DAJA) and WFP Award. He can be contacted at [email protected]