The stories I heard from Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, the south-eastern tip of Bangladesh, are haunting. Almost 400,000 people have fled across the border from Myanmar in less than three weeks, and many of them tell you they have seen their family members shot dead or their villages burned to the ground by Myanmar security forces just days before. There is no question that ethnic cleansing is unfolding across the border.
But amid the tales of horror, there is also incredible humanity on display.
At one border crossing, we met two young Bangladeshi men who had spent the whole day handing out apples to exhausted and emaciated refugees, many of whom had walked for more than 10 days to reach the border. Close to the village of Ali Khali I came across a group of local women, men and children who were constructing a makeshift refugee camp from bamboo sticks and tarpaulin that they had paid for out of their own pockets. Our translator told us that he and other people from his village had spent their Eid holiday cooking food to hand out and handing it out to fleeing Rohingyas. There are too many similar stories to count.
There is, however, only so much that the people of Cox’s Bazar, many of whom are living on the brink of poverty themselves, can do. Bangladesh is facing a humanitarian crisis, and this is where the government and the international community must step in.
Last week, we saw tens of thousands of newly arrived Rohingya lined up along the roads with nowhere to go, many of them sleeping in the open without shelter from the relentless monsoon downpours. The few existing refugee camps were overcrowded and under-resourced even before the current crisis – they are now strained beyond their limits. Bangladeshi media is already carrying reports of water-borne diseases spreading rapidly and thousands of Rohingya going without access to medical care.
Bangladesh’s government has, by all accounts, responded with incredible generosity over the past three weeks. The border to Myanmar is for all intents and purposes open, and thousands of refugees continue to enter each day.
Bangladesh has pledged to set aside 2,000 hectares of land to house refugees in new camps and to provide any aid it can to meet their needs. This week, a visibly moved Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar and spent hours speaking to Rohingya who had just made it across the border. In a statement putting many Western leaders to shame, Hasina declared: "We have the ability to feed 160 million people of Bangladesh and we have enough food security to feed the 700,000 refugees."
But authorities in Dhaka have historically been much more ambivalent towards Rohingya refugees. Rohingyas have arrived in waves into Bangladesh since at least the 1970s, with the influx peaking during bouts of violence in Myanmar. No one knows the exact number, but it is likely that some 400,000 Rohingya refugees were living in Bangladesh before the current exodus started.
Yet since 1992, Bangladesh has refused to recognise newly arrived Rohingya as refugees, apparently in order to avoid creating a "pull factor" that could tempt others to follow. As a result, there are only some 33,000 officially recognised Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, most of whom reside in two camps managed by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Cox’s Bazar. The others live in makeshift camps or villages in a state of legal limbo, where they are at constant risk of arrest and deportation. Authorities refer to them as UMNs – Undocumented Myanmar Nationals. Unregistered Rohingya refugees lack access to basic services and are extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by criminal gangs. Although aid delivery to undocumented Rohingyas has improved in recent years, it is still nowhere near enough. Authorities in Dhaka continue to threaten to deport Rohingya back to Myanmar, or even to ship them to a barely inhabitable Bangladeshi island.
Bangladesh has also had a tense relationship with international NGOs in the region. There are only a handful of aid agencies operating in Cox’s Bazar, and they face tight restrictions on the scope of the services they are allowed to provide.
In November last year, when tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees arrived in Cox’s Bazar after a similarly vicious military campaign in Rakhine state, many NGO officials, both international and Bangladeshi, expressed frustration. They said they had the resources to do more, but were hamstrung by the government in Dhaka. Aid agencies working in Cox’s Bazar have responded heroically over the past three weeks, and they must be allowed to continue to do so without any limits on who they can help.
In 1971, India accepted millions of Bangladeshi refugees as Pakistani forces tried to brutally quash the nascent Bangladeshi independence struggle. Bangladesh has shown the same compassion in the last few weeks toward Rohingya, but Dhaka must recognise that it cannot — and should not have to — face this enormous challenge alone.
Bangladesh will need all the help it can get to address the fast-growing refugee crisis in the world. The international community must wake up to the nightmare the Rohingya people are living through and provide help in any way that it can, including through financial support for humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, the Bangladeshi authorities must ensure that those with the means and willingness to lend a hand are allowed to do so. Granting aid agencies unfettered access to refugees would be a significant step in the right direction.
"We are simply trying to do what we can," one of the men handing out apples at the border crossing told me. Bangladesh and the international community must embrace the same spirit before it is too late.
The author works with Amnesty International.
Updated Date: Sep 16, 2017 16:11 PM