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Rohingya: Those Trapped Inside the Largest Refugee Camp in the World

By Alex Butler

According to World Vision, since August of 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees have fled from Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh. The Rohingya are a Muslim minority ethnic group that live in Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist state. They are currently fleeing what the United Nations and many other international groups have classified as genocidal violence in their home country.

The Rohingya have suffered from decades of abuse and discrimination within Myanmar. From 1977 to 1978, around 200,000 Rohingya fled the military rule in Burma, what Myanmar was formerly known as, to Bangladesh. Shortly after, a new citizenship law identified 135 national groups within Burma.

This law excluded the Rohingya and left them essentially stateless. Another military crackdown from 1989 to 1991 caused another wave of refugees to flee to Bangladesh. The following year, the Myanmar and Bangladesh governments made agreements that led to the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of refugees. Regardless, religious violence continued to cause a steady stream of people feeling the country. When Myanmar completed its first census in 30 years in 2014, the Rohingya were still not included as an ethnic group.

In 2016, a military crackdown caused around 87,000 people to flee once more to Bangladesh. The following year, due to Rohingya militia attacks on police and army posts in Myanmar, state security forces targeted the Rohingya community, causing a new cycle of mass displacement. While repatriation talks occurred in November of 2017, little action was taken to follow through.

As the refugee flow increased and atrocities continued, an International Court of Justice accused Myanmar of genocide against the Rohingya people in 2019. VOA reports that a UN fact-finding mission in 2018 also found that Myanmar's army showed genocidal intent towards the Rohingya in its military practices. Myanmar's former leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, defended her government's actions, calling the case against Myanmar incomplete and misleading, asserting that Myanmar actively investigated, prosecuted, and punished soldiers and officers accused of wrongdoing.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation reports that more than 730,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh, joining the 250,000 Rohingya already living there. A majority of these refugees live in the camps south of Cox's Bazar in southeast Bangladesh. Some 20,000 have been relocated to Bhasan Char island to relieve the overcrowded Cox's Bazar camps, as reported by Al Jazeera. The living conditions in these camps are not ideal. World Vision observed that the camps are rudimentary and that there are 40,000 people per square kilometer, making the camps one of the most crowded areas on earth.

Photo By UKAID

Families live in 10 by 16-foot one-room shelters and up to 20 people share a single outdoor latrine. Refugees are forced to wait in long lines to get water for washing, cooking, and bathing. Heavy monsoons and rains worsen conditions from April to November, plaguing the camps with floods and landslides.

On March 22, 2021, a fire swept through Cox's Bazar, destroying more than 10,000 shelters, food distribution sites, and clean water and sanitation facilities. The fire further displaced around 45,000 people. At least 15 people were killed, 400 are still missing, and hundreds were injured. Children, which make up half of the refugee population, face risks of malnutrition, trafficking, and infection of COVID-19 or other illnesses as many water and sanitation sites have been damaged or destroyed by the fire.

Women and girls are particularly at risk of assault, domestic violence, child marriage, exploitation, and trafficking. All refugees suffer from psychological stress, which is aggravated by overcrowded conditions. The tense climate that resulted from the killing of a Rohingya community member has also contributed to this stress.

Aid agencies and non-governmental organizations initially worked with the government of Bangladesh to establish life-saving operations and emergency healthcare, build shelters and sanitation stations and provide additional food supplies. The goal has now shifted towards upgrading infrastructure and services for the long term, per Reuters. The World Food Programme has provided food, but the options are limited and balanced nutrition and dietary restrictions remain a challenge.

Map Provided by ReliefWeb

There is little hope for repatriation in the near future. Myanmar is currently in the midst of a military coup which has caused widespread civil unrest. Aung San Suu Kyi is being held under house arrest and is facing charges in a secret court. Other officials, opposition politicians, writers, and activists have been detained. The New York Times reports that pro-democracy protests have led to a forceful military response. Telephone and internet access have been severely restricted, and several media members have been arrested, despite the military's claim that it respects the freedom of the press. The stock market and commercial banks have been closed, and many are fleeing into neighboring India as the country teeters towards a civil war.

Unless domestic stability is achieved, the return of refugees is unlikely. Even if Myanmar becomes stable, the Rohingya may still be at risk of discrimination and forced out once more. With the current political situation ongoing, the Rohingya will likely remain in these camps for the long term.

Cover Photo by UKAID


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