Why nothing is getting better for Rohingya refugees stuck in Bangladesh
Updated March 9, 2023 at 5:58 PM ET
REFUGEE CAMP 18, COX'S BAZAR, Bangladesh – Six years ago, a steady stream of strangers used to visit Jamalida Begum's sweltering little bamboo house in this Rohingya refugee camp in southern Bangladesh to hear about the worst day of her life.
It was a day in October 2016. Soldiers sprayed bullets into Begum's home village just across the border in Myanmar's Rakhine state, killing her husband and neighbors.
She'd recount everything in calm detail: How she held a vigil over her husband's bullet-riddled body, but then had to flee for her own life without burying him. She'd talk about how she and her female neighbors hid out in a nearby village, when soldiers from Myanmar's military came back for them–and what those soldiers did next, when they found her.
Begum, 33, is one of thousands of rape survivors from what human rights observers call a genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar. More than a million Rohingya have taken refuge across the border in southern Bangladesh, where most of them have lived for more than five years.
Over the years, Begum has told her story to aid workers, journalists, investigators from the International Criminal Court, even Bangladesh's prime minister, when she visited this camp. But that constant stream of polite foreign visitors who'd sit cross-legged on her dirt floor and listen rapt as she told her story has now dwindled.
"I used to see my name in the news all the time," Begum says. "But journalists have stopped coming. The world has stopped listening. I feel forgotten, and I still don't have justice."
She has no justice, and no hope of returning home to Myanmar either. A coup two years ago left the military in charge there – the same military whose soldiers raped her and killed her husband.
Meanwhile, conditions in these refugee camps are becoming dire. Free schooling stops at eighth grade. Crime and drug trafficking are rampant. There are deadly floods in the rainy season, and fires in the dry season. Scientists say Bangladesh is on the front lines of climate change, and those conditions are likely to worsen.
On March 5, a blaze swept through a cluster of camps near Begum's, leaving 12,000 Rohingya people homeless, according to the United Nations.
With a new refugee crisis in Ukraine, Rohingya feel forgotten
Over the past year, there's been an outpouring of global support for millions of Ukrainians who've become refugees since Russia's invasion. Rohingya have been in their shoes. But many, like Begum, told NPR they feel forgotten, as the world moves on to newer conflicts elsewhere.
Aid agencies say U.S. and European media have used racist language to describe non-European refugees like the Rohingya. Academics have documented what they call differential treatment, Islamophobia and prejudice by Western governments against non-white refugees from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
Many Rohingya say they've given up on pleading for more Western help. A fresh exodus of refugees from these camps in southern Bangladesh is heading eastward by sea – to Muslim countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.
The U.N. says it tracked a 360% spike last year in the number of Rohingya risking their lives on these dangerous boat journeys--from 700 to 3,500. Many hundreds – perhaps thousands – have drowned.
A dangerous exodus crossing the Bay of Bengal
Hazera Khatun feared her teenage son was one of those who didn't make it.
In another bamboo structure not far from Begum's, Khatun, 50, sifts rice for her husband and 12 children. Her big family used to be prosperous, running a grocery store back home in Myanmar – until 2017, when soldiers set fire to their house.
She explains how her family fled northward by boat to this refugee camp in Bangladesh. With ongoing conflict – what many are calling a civil war – in Myanmar, it's impossible for her to think of going back.
"But we can't live off charity in a refugee camp forever," she says.
One day last fall, Khatun's 17-year-old son Mohammad Hasan approached her with an idea: He'd heard how smugglers were ferrying Rohingya out of this camp and across the sea to Malaysia. He could go, get a job and send money back.
"I had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach," Khatun recalls.
She reminded him of the trauma of their previous boat journey out of Myanmar's Rakhine state and into the Bay of Bengal, then northward to this camp in Bangladesh. They were seasick and hungry.
But Rohingya can only go to school in these camps through eighth grade and Bangladesh has banned them from studying in the local Bangla language, says Human Rights Watch, in order to prevent integration.
Hasan was idle. Other teenagers in the camp had gotten into drugs.
So Khatun gave in. She pooled her money to load a secondhand cell phone with credit, gave it to her son, and made him promise to call home. Then she hugged him goodbye as he snuck out to meet a smuggler on the edge of the Bay of Bengal.
With the help of a local activist, NPR retraced Hasan's steps.
Standing on a sandy strip near a coastal road outside the town of Cox's Bazar, where Hasan was last seen, NGO chief Didarul Alam Rashed describes the profile of those who flee.
"Most are young Rohingya men – 200 or 300 at a time — who are frustrated with the lack of opportunity in the camps, fleeing internal community conflicts – or going abroad to try to get married," he says.
Rashed's NGO, called NONGOR, drops leaflets on beaches near the Rohingya camps, discouraging refugees from trying to escape by sea because of the danger.
"We try, but we can't always stop them," he acknowledges.
The beach Hasan set off from is lined with fishing boats by day, and smugglers by night. The latter can be unscrupulous. Often they don't take enough food and water for the journey. Sometimes they underestimate weather conditions, Rashed explains. And then the smuggling boats need help.
"The rescue rate is low. For every boat that's rescued when it gets into trouble, there are probably ten that remain missing," he estimates.
Hasan set off in mid-autumn. Seas were still rough. Most boats wait until winter to leave, when seas are calmer.
After Khatun hugged her son goodbye, weeks passed. Her phone was silent. Her son didn't call.
"Meanwhile, I heard about all these boats sinking," Khatun says. "I was frantic, sick with worry."
Then one morning in December, after many sleepless nights during which Khatun's hopes dwindled of ever seeing her son again, Hasan walked through the door of their bamboo house. His mother thought she was hallucinating.
A smuggler had confiscated his phone. That's why he hadn't called.
But he was alive.
Hasan had spent two and a half months at sea in a boat with dozens of fellow Rohingya.
"We only had enough food for one meal every two days," Hasan recalled when NPR met him in February, together with his mother, at the family's bamboo home in the refugee camp.
They sit cross-legged on the floor side by side. Khatun caresses her son's ankle as he talks. He still looks thin.
Hasan explains how they tried to make it to Malaysia, but had to turn back. Smugglers dropped him off Bangladesh's coast – right where he started. He feels cheated. His misadventure left his family with about $1,000 dollars in debt. They'd taken out loans to pay the smuggler – and the money wasn't returned.
He's even more desperate now.
"Is there any other country, any other opportunity for me?" Hasan asks.
One thing is certain, he says: He will try to flee again, but not by boat.
There is another way to reach Malaysia from southern Bangladesh – over land. But it is perhaps even more dangerous. It requires sneaking across Myanmar. Some Rohingya refugees have successfully done it. Others have tried and never been heard from again.
Bangladeshi officials are overwhelmed.
In the five years most of the Rohingya refugees have been in Bangladesh, their camps have become more like cities.
What was once a dirt road outside Begum and Khatun's bamboo houses has now been paved over. Bigger buildings lined with tarpaulins with the logo of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees are being fortified with concrete. Kiosks sell potato chips and nuts and there's a barber shop. The Muslim call to prayer rings out across the camp, and young men in white prayer caps gather.
Many of the Rohingya children under age 6 have grown up in Bangladesh without ever setting foot in their home country of Myanmar. Most are reliant entirely on humanitarian aid. The U.N. says many have no legal identity or citizenship.
In the camps, Rohingya school children recite the national anthem of Myanmar – the country that expelled, raped and killed their parents – but which, in the absence of any other option, they still consider to be their homeland.
Their host government, Bangladesh, doesn't want them to integrate. It's tried to resettle tens of thousands of them on a remote silt island in the Bay of Bengal. It's encouraged others to return to Myanmar, or resettle in other countries. Bangladeshi officials complain that the burden of caring for the Rohingya has fallen unfairly on them.
"We're already struggling to provide education and health for our own people," Atiur Rahman, a former governor of Bangladesh's central bank, told NPR at his Dhaka office. "The Rohingya are a sudden disaster imposed on Bangladesh, and Bangladesh wasn't ready for it."
"We thought this was a temporary phase," Rahman says. "But the whole world is not doing much to resolve this."
A museum of baskets, boats and memories
With little hope of returning home to Myanmar, Rohingya community leaders have partnered with the U.N.'s International Organization for Migration to build a cultural memory center in one of their refugee camps in southern Bangladesh.
They spent three years collecting traditional Rohingya farm tools, musical instruments, baskets, embroidery and kitchen utensils. Artisans built straw models of Rohingya fishing boats and architecture indigenous to the Rohingya's home state of Rakhine, Myanmar.
It's all on display in a cluster of bamboo buildings atop a hill – and open to all members of the community. There are weekly workshops for women. And school groups visit almost every day.
Children run around and play with the dioramas. But when adults visit, they often weep, says one of the center's tour guides, Sahat Zia Hero. Because even a plow from an old farm, now abandoned, can be a reminder of the life they left behind.
"For a few moments, it's like going back in time to visit their home villages again," he says. "It can help heal their trauma and release their stress."
Zia says the Rohingya people are facing an identity crisis.
"It's really important to remind people of their own culture, because culture is our identity, and we must keep our identity with us," he says. "So that we never become people from nowhere."
"The people the world has forgotten," he says.
Freelance producers Dil Afrose Jahan and Mohammed Salim Khan contributed to this story from Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
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