Rohingya refugees: Victims of global silence

Seven years since violence broke out in Myanmar, Rohingya refugees continue to live in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar, where conditions are dire and prospects of returning home are still distant.

Feb 12, 2024

A Rohingya refugee walks at a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar

By Francesca Merlo
Almost one million Rohingya refugees are living in some of the world’s largest refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar area. “Unfortunately, nobody talks about Rohingya refugees anymore” but the situations inside, and outside, the camps is getting worse and worse.

Sultana Begum, Asia regional head of humanitarian policy for Save the Children, describes the living conditions in Cox’s Bazar as being “really squalid”. “Security at the camp is terrible, there are lots of armed groups and violence is rising”, she tells Vatican News. It is clear from this brief description that it is no place for a child to grow up. But children comprise over half of the refugees in Cox’s Bazar, so the Rohingya crisis “really is a children’s crisis”.

The Rohingyas
Rohingyas are an ethnic minority group, predominantly Muslim, who reside primarily in Rakhine State, Myanmar. Before the Rohingya genocide in 2017, when over 740,000 fled to Bangladesh, an estimated 1.4 million Rohingya lived in Myanmar.

Pope Francis has often prayed for Rohingyas, including last Wednesday during his weekly General Audience, during which he asked that the world not forget the Rohingya refugees. But the reality, says Ms Begum, is that “the Rohingya crisis is a forgotten crisis. We're seven years in, it's protracted. The media attention span is really short. It's moved on to other stories”.

The reality for children
Now, around 500,000 Rohingya children live in the camps in Cox’s Bazar, and many of them, according to Ms Begum, “are already showing signs of depression and anxiety”.

“They’re confined to the camps, with very little movement” and they’re losing any hope that they have for a better future, especially the older ones who neither have access to work nor to schooling. “We do have safe spaces where we can support the younger ones to play and be children and we have psycho-social support programs, but are they enough?” asks Ms Begum. “I would say no”.

Disaster on top of disaster
But on top of that, Ms Begum reminds us that Bangladesh is one of the world's worst disaster-prone areas. She explains that the camps have been built on what was once a forest. “When it rains, the flimsy bamboo shelters, which are built high on hills, can be washed away. There's flooding”.

And the weather conditions worsen an already disastrous healthcare situation. “Illness is a big problem in the congested camps”, and children and families are very susceptible to a lot of diseases, like dengue. On top of that, many of the children are very malnourished.

But the horrors that Rohingya refugees face go much further than Bangladesh. Ms Begum describes it as “a catch-22 situation”: They are unable to go home but life in Cox’s Bazar is desperate.

Like no other persecuted group in the world, the Rohingyas are stateless, meaning that they have no legal documents: “They don't have a passport, they're displaced in a region where most of these governments in the region don't recognize refugees”, meaning that they are under no legal obligation to provide them with support. “They're so vulnerable”, warns Ms Begum, highlighting the risk of violence, child labour, human trafficking and child marriage. “They're also often treated as immigrants and they're detained or deported for immigration offences.”

The Rohingya refugees are almost entirely dependent on humanitarian aid to survive. After food aid was cut last year, “desperate Rohingya refugees resorted to marrying off girls in high numbers or putting boys at work just because they needed to survive”.

Desperately seeking better life
“So, they take these dangerous sea journeys, particularly from Bangladesh to countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia”. They risk their lives in the hope of leading better ones, hoping to work, and in some cases to be reunited with family. Last year almost 600 people died in this crossing.

“Getting on these boats means being at the mercy of traffickers and at risk of abuse and exploitation. They're often packed in these boats with insufficient food and water and they're often also physically abused at the hand of smugglers”, says Ms Begum, recounting the story she was told by a young 14-year-old boy who survived the crossing, despite the hundreds of refugees on board with him running out of food and water days before reaching land.

Until the Rohingya are able to return home to Myanmar, what is essential is that improvements are made by governments in the region. “They have to rescue and assist and support these people and show compassion”, says Ms Begum.

The international community
“Unfortunately, people don't really speak about the situation for Rohingya refugees anymore”. While part of the solution to the crisis lies in a political solution in Myanmar, the international community has an essential role in different areas. Although “Bangladesh did an incredible thing letting Rohingya refugees in”, it is a poor country and other countries need to take more responsibility and support Bangladesh through humanitarian aid.

A desire to go home
The refugees in the camps say that they want to go home, but only when the conditions are safe, “when they have basic rights and when they have citizenship and access to things like services so they can survive”. But, what Ms Begum says they are saying now is that “the conditions in Myanmar aren't conducive for safe returns”. Until that changes, “it's really up to the international community to provide extra support to these vulnerable people because without documents, without the state, and without recognition as refugees, they are in a very difficult situation”.

Pope Francis' voice
Pope Francis has often prayed for the Rohingyas, with his latest appeal dating back to February 7, while praying for peace during his weekly General Audience.

“I think his voice and the voices of the Church is going to be incredibly important”, says Ms Begum. Having figures such as Pope Francis speaking up for the rights of Rohingyas is very important, firstly so that “the Rohingya know that the international community hasn't forgotten them” but also because “we need to continue to shine a spotlight on the situation of the Rohingya because they remain one of the most vulnerable groups in the world”, they deserve a voice, and people need to apply pressure to world leaders to give them aid, as well as to find a political solution.--Vatican News

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