It’s been three years, but the memory still haunts Yasmin in her dreams.
The 22-year-old Rohingya woman now resides in the sprawling Kutupalong refugee camp in Southern Bangladesh. Making her way there in 2017 was an arduous journey; she had slogged through the monsoon-drenched jungles and paddy fields of Western Myanmar in the dark for four days. She was fleeing a pogrom.
“I was pregnant but that didn’t save me from being violated by a group of Myanmar soldiers. They came; killed my husband, raped me and burned my home,” Yasmin told VICE News.“I had to run for my life with others.”
Yasmin’s story is just one of many tales of horror, brutality and madness that had taken place in the swampy Maungdaw district of Myanmar’s Rakhaine state after a group of Rohingya insurgents, who styled themselves as “freedom fighters”, attacked the Myanmar national army posts on August 25, 2017.
In retaliation, Myanmar’s armed forces launched a ruthless counter-attack. Entire townships inhabited by the Rohingyas across the Mangdaw region went up in flames. Over 750,000 Rohingyas were forced to cross the border into neighboring Bangladesh.
The new arrivals in Bangladesh joined more than 200,000 Rohingyas who had fled earlier violence. These millions of refugees are living inside a total of 39 camps—together forming the world’s single largest refugee camp—straining resources in one of Asia’s poorest regions.
“Life inside a refugee camp is not an easy one,” said Yasmin, who now has a son named Abdullah whom she gave birth inside a fragile shelter of blue tarp and bamboo, shared with few other refugees. “It’s a life of indignity and uncertainty.”
Back in her village in Myanmar, Yasmin had a spacious permanent tin-roofed home, a vegetable garden, four cows and a few chickens. Here in the camp, she lives on cash and food provided by the aid agencies.
“I see no future for me and my son here. I’ve got marriage proposals from here in the camp but I am too scared and unsure of getting married again,” said Yasmin.
Boredom and bleak future
Life for every refugee like Yasmin, whether formerly rich or poor, had been reduced to a few square meters of shelter abutting streams of sewage-infested runoff water.
Rohingya men, women and children while away long hours of unemployed boredom sitting on the ground inside or outside their shelters. Existence has become a cycle of eating, defecating and sleeping for them.
“If I think of what we had faced in Myanmar three years ago, I feel grateful that I am still alive. I have a shelter and food to survive,” said Abdul Rahman, a 31-year-old Rohingya refugee in Balukhali camp.
But it is statelessness that brings out the fury and frustration of Rahman. “Our own country [Myanmar] doesn’t even recognise us as Rohingya. The Bangladesh government doesn’t allow us to move anywhere outside the camp.”
“As citizens of nowhere, we are trapped on a bare hillside in a foreign country with no hope,” Rahman told VICE News.
Many of the refugees said that their concerns have switched from everyday survival to longer-term worries as the prospect for speedy repatriation dwindles.
Mohib Ullah, who has emerged as a Rohingya leader trying to galvanise international, political and financial support for the refugees, told VICE News that they want to return to their homeland but only after their identity and security are ensured.
The Bangladesh government has so far organized several official repatriation attempts that have failed because refugees have been unwilling to return, saying they feared persecution and abuse in Myanmar.
The UN refugee agency also agreed that the conditions in Rakhine State are not yet conducive to voluntary, safe, and dignified return of the Rohingya.
How hospitable is Bangladesh?
“Myanmar is still too unsafe for our return,” said Ullah, “But if we have to stay here in the camps for a longer period, we would like the Rohingyas to benefit from education, security, refugee status, and employment.”
“We also need better healthcare,” Ullah added, “The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how fragile the healthcare system of the camp is.” A total of 88 cases of the coronavirus have already been found in the camps and six people have died.
Human Rights Watch (HRW)—the U.S. based watchdog said that Bangladesh commendably opened its borders when the Rohingya were fleeing persecution, but the government’s policies over the past years have put refugees’ lives at serious risk and violated their basic rights.
Last August, there was a peaceful demonstration in Kutapulong camp to commemorate “Rohingya genocide awareness day” In response, the Bangladesh government shut off all internet access in the refugee camps directed mobile phone carrier companies to stop selling SIM cards to Rohingya, and confiscated thousands of SIM cards from refugees.
Several aid workers told HRW that internet blockade has seriously hampered their capacity to provide emergency health services, provide timely and accurate information about the virus, and rapidly coordinate essential measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the camps.
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia Director of HRW told VICE News that Bangladesh has won praise for providing safe shelter to the refugees, but “that welcome is now wearing thin.”
“On the pretext of controlling crime, the security forces in Bangladesh have targeted refugees and there are serious allegations of extrajudicial killings,” she said.
The world is not doing enough
Md Mahbub Alam Talukder, Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) of the Bangladesh government however said the Rohingya refugees are in a “relatively better position now.”
“The [Bangladesh] government with the help of the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been supporting refugees so that they can have a life with dignity here in Bangladesh,” Talukder told VICE News.
“The rest of the world should put pressure on the Myanmar government to take their citizens back. Unfortunately that hasn’t been happening,” he said.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim, author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide” told VICE that the repatriation of Rohingya seems unlikely in the near future as there is no pressure on Myanmar from the Western governments to change its behavior.
“Besides, there is nowhere for the Rohingya to be repatriated”.
Dr Ali Riaz, distinguished professor of Politics and Government of Illinois State University told VICE News that the diplomatic support by China, Russia, and India have shielded Myanmar from rebuke at international forums.
“The only viable solution to the crisis is, as it was in 2017, establishing a safe zone inside Myanmar to ensure safe return of Rohingyas,” said Riaz.
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