Authors Note – This week’s article is a special edition as I have collaborated with a Rohingya refugee living in Cox’s Bazaar camp in Bangladesh after fleeing the Myanmar genocide. His name is Jamal Hossain. I have also collaborated with Rohingyatographer Magazine, a unique project created by a team of talented photographers based in Cox’s Bazaar. They have kindly allowed me to share some of their thought-provoking photography. A special thank you to both collaborations.
The above image is by © Sahat Zia Hero – The man is Hafsan, an 82-year-old Rohingya Islamic scholar.
Over One Million Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazaar
Rohingya Muslims are still waiting for justice and the protection of their human rights after the Myanmar military launched a brutal regime of ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State on the 25th of August, 2017. The Myanmar military began a sweeping campaign of massacres, rape and arson against the Rohingya population. Approximately 750,000 Rohingya fled their homes and sought refuge in precarious, flood-type camps in Bangladesh.
Over 1.1 million Rohingya refugees have fled ongoing violence in Myanmar. Many stateless Rohingya live in the world’s largest refugee camp, Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh. Many Rohingya say the camp conditions and safety have deteriorated as the humanitarian crisis prolongs. In 2021, aid groups sought nearly $1 billion in donor funding as shortages have grown acute.
Additionally, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled to neighbouring countries by land or boat for many decades due to ongoing violence and persecution. Five years later, the Myanmar government has still not been held accountable for crimes against humanity and acts of genocide. Moreover, an UN-mandated fact-finding mission on Myanmar says abuses and rights violations in Rakhine “undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law”.
Who are the Rohingya?
The Rohingya are an ethnic group who lived for centuries in Myanmar until the government committed genocide on their population. The Rohingya are known as the “world’s most persecuted minority”.
Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingya as part of its 135 official ethnic groups. Since 1982 they have been denied citizenship in Myanmar, effectively rendering them stateless. Nearly all the remaining Rohingya in Myanmar live in the western coastal state of Rakhine. It is one of the poorest states in Myanmar, with ghetto-like camps and a lack of essential services and opportunities. Refugees are not allowed to leave without the government’s permission.
Read also: Rohingya Muslims: Citizens Of Nowhere.
An Interview With Jamal, A Brave Rohingya Refugee
Who is Jamal?
While researching and writing this article, I had the privilege of interviewing Jamal, a Rohingya refugee currently living in Cox’s Bazar refugee camp in Bangladesh.
Jamal is twenty-years-old and is originally from Myanmar, Rakhine state. In 2017, Jamal and his family fled to Bangladesh and are currently living in an uncomfortable makeshift camp. I am helping Jamal to get his story across to the international community. Jamal works at a local news agency, “The Territorial News”, highlighting the Rohingya histories, cultures and traditions.
The image below shows Jamal helping a 75-year-old Rohingya refugee, Maher Khatun, who is suffering from serious health complications in the camp. The refugees have minimal access to health care services or supplies. Despite Jamal having very little, he talks about how he often brings her to the nearest shop to feed her milk and juices.
Jamal’s Unforgettable Nightmare
On the 25th of August 2017, Jamal and his family fled Myanmar and walked for five days straight until they arrived in Bangladesh. They started living in makeshift camps in Cox’s Bazaar while the World Food Programme provided them with essentials.
Jamal speaks of how he fled from the gunshots and the Burmese military as they eradicated his people.
“My journey was horrible and an unforgettable nightmare. It took me and my family a long time to escape Myanmar and to get safe and sound to Bangladesh. On our way here, we wandered like prey being hunted, hiding in paddy fields and forests, starving for days, and feeding on raw leaves or weeds. Those fields were full of wounded souls, crawling among corpses and blood, just trying to make it towards the safe zone. I often thought: “today is my last day in this world”, but luckily God was beside me and he wished for me to be alive.”Jamal, Rohingya refugee living in Cox’s Bazaar refugee camp.
“They Planted Nightmares in Me, but I Harvested Dreams”
Jamal began teaching children as a freelance volunteer in the refugee camps. Rohingya refugees must stay within the confinement of the camps. In addition, only informal education is allowed for children under the age of 15 years.
Jamal has lost everything his home, country, citizenship, friends, and education. Although they planted nightmares within him, Jamal used this trauma to harvest new dreams for himself. Remarkably, Jamal is brave and optimistic despite everything he has endured. Jamal hopes that one day he will settle down in a peaceful country. In the future, Jamal wishes to become a teacher and continue helping people.
The Lingering Trauma & Deplorable Camp Conditions
Five years later, the Rohingya still face many challenges in Cox’s Bazaar camps. Fires have ravaged many camps, destroying many makeshift homes and personal belongings. Furthermore, severe monsoon floods have made conditions considerably worse. The Rohingya faced COVID-19 challenges with very few resources.
Since August 2017, human rights organizations have interviewed hundreds of refugees living in Bangladesh. They described brutal scenes where Burmese soldiers systematically killed and raped villagers before torching their homes. During the brutal crackdown, the security forces killed thousands of people and burned down nearly 400 villages.
There has been a rise in gender-based violence and reported sexual violence in the camps. A climate of impunity prevails as no formal justice system or accountability measures exist.
Most Rohingya refugees live in camps with population densities of less than 15 square metres per person. This is below the minimum international guidelines for refugee camps.
Moreover, Bangladesh has severely restricted the Rohingya’s livelihoods, movement, and education. Hence, Bangladesh has closed community-based schools, arbitrarily destroyed shops, and imposed new travel restrictions.
International Court of Justice: Genocide Case Against Myanmar
In November 2019, Gambia filed a case before the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The case concerns Myanmar’s alleged genocide against the ethnic Rohingya population in Rakhine State. The Gambian government alleged that the Myanmar military committed the genocidal acts of “killing, causing serious bodily and mental harm, inflicting conditions that are calculated to bring about physical destruction, imposing measures to prevent births, and forcible transfers intended to destroy the Rohingya group in whole or in part.”
The ICJ hearings are the next step in this landmark case to break the cycle of violence and impunity. According to Human Rights Watch and the Global Justice Centre, this case could widely scrutinize Myanmar’s longstanding international crimes.
What is the Rohingya Refugees’ Future?
Myanmar Coup 2021
Prospects for the Rohingya people to return to their land have only grown dimmer following the Myanmar coup in February 2021. This has re-ignited conflicts in Myanmar and worsened the existing humanitarian crisis. The coup has further destabilized Myanmar triggering a nationwide civil disobedience movement.
Since the coup, junta security forces have carried out mass killings, torture, sexual violence, and arbitrary arrests of the Rohingya. Rights groups claim this could amount to crimes against humanity. Additionally, over 1,500 Rohingya were killed since the coup was established. The Rohingya who are currently living in Rakhine State are facing systematic abuses. These abuses amount to crimes of apartheid, persecution, and deprivation of liberty.
Repatriate or Resettle?
The international community must help either repatriate or resettle the Rohingya people and end this ongoing humanitarian crisis. Moreover, the people in Bangladesh have already suffered enough. Thus, the international community must compensate them for their generosity in welcoming millions of refugees.
Jamal interviewed different community members at the refugee camp who spoke about wanting different outcomes for their futures. Some Rohingya want a dignified return to their land with equal rights and protection measures established. However, whether these protection measures could be effectively introduced remains uncertain. Other community members discuss their wishes to resettle in a third country with new opportunities and fundamental rights.
The international response to Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing regime was fragmented and halting. Word leaders preferred quiet diplomacy that achieved little over strategic measures to place real pressure on Myanmar. We must establish a cohesive international response to protect the Rohingya people’s fundamental rights effectively.
We hope for Jamal and all Rohingya refugees that one day they will have a safe and peaceful place to live. As Nelson Mandela once said, “to deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity”.
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