Rohingya refugees walk down a footpath during a heavy monsoon downpour in Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, southern Bangladesh. Photo: UNHCR
Rohingya refugees walk down a footpath during a heavy monsoon downpour in Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, southern Bangladesh. Photo: UNHCR

On November 26 last year fed up of being ignored, Rohingya refugees in camps in southeastern Bangladesh did something out of ordinary: they went on strike. For three days, leaders of the Rohingya community declared, that no man or woman working in the camp as a shopkeeper, teacher, health worker, or builder – would providing their crucial manpower.

The call to arms was in response to new identity cards issued by the Bangladesh authorities and the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. The ‘smart’ cards did not identify their ethnicity as ‘Rohingya’.

The strike had an immediate impact and was called-off on the first day after the Bangladesh government and UNHCR agreed to meet, discuss, and work with the Rohingya community’s leaders. This was before the general election. Repatriation to Rakhine State in western Myanmar was then postponed and the smart cards now list their ethnicity.

The protest in November had been simmering for months, and is, so far, the most successful example of how leaders of the Rohingya community – after having been denied a voice for generations in Myanmar – are galvanizing the refugees to fight for their rights.

World’s biggest refugee settlement

The Kutupalong-Balukhali refugee settlement in Bangladesh has grown to become the largest of its kind in the world. It started with a mass exodus after a brutal crackdown by Myanmar army units and Rakhine villagers in August 2017, acts described by the United Nations as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

The campaign launched by the Myanmar military saw over 800,000 Rohingya refugees flee across the border to Bangladesh within a few months. They joined refugees who had fled earlier rounds of violence and the population in the makeshift camps rose to over 1.1 million.

While the Rohingya community has found safety from the violence, food security and temporary shelter, their fight for basic human rights is far from over,” said Muhib Ullah, one of the organizers of the protest in November.

Muhib Ullah, a young engineer from Rakhine in Myanmar has emerged as a community leader. He heads a group called Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPH) to lobby for communal demands. Their main demand for the past few months has been access to quality education for their children.

“We are happy we have safety,” he said. “Our first priority was making sure our families had food and shelter. As a human being, we first need food and safety. That we made it to the camps, and are now safe is enough for the international community. But do we have human rights here? Even refugees have rights, and my community’s biggest concern is educating our future generations.”

Computer literacy wanted

The Arakan Rohingya Society group was formed in November 2017. Computer literacy has emerged as another key demand. “The world has become digital. We live in the dark if we are not on the internet,” said Muhib Ullah.

The organization’s nascent activism prompted an aid agency to donate a second-hand laptop and printer. Muhib Ullah’s target is to teach educated members of the Rohingya community to get on social media, write press releases and tell their stories on their own.

“We are facing problems and we have to solve it ourselves. No one is going to help us solve our problems if we don’t lead. We also have to explain to the international community how we are suffering,” said Mohammed Eliyas, another member of ARSPH. The group has also formed a Facebook page where it routinely reacts to news about the Rohingya crisis, and translates important news stories into Burmese, so residents in the camp can get that news.

Eliyas said not having access to education was like having ‘no ears and eyes’. “When we were children, we did not get a chance to go to schools. The same is happening to our children in Bangladesh. We cannot prepare our children for the future, for life, if they don’t have eyes or ears.”

More than half a million Rohingya children with no access to formal education are at risk of becoming the ‘lost generation’ according to Unicef. Last year, the agency appealed for US$28.2 million for its work to help educate the Rohingya refugees. Just over 50% of that has been received so far. ARSPH has called for at least one open university affiliated to Dhaka University, plus multiple schools in all camps.

Finding a voice

Another key development has been a community-based radio station called Radio NAF. The idea to start a radio station came up after the community realized that after food and safety, the most important thing refugees needed was information. The station employs both Rohingya and Bangladeshi journalists.

“It gives them basic, but critical information about where to access medicine, distribution points for food. This is a radio service about the Rohingya community, for the Rohingya community, by the Rohingya community,” said Rashidul Hassan, a program coordinator for Radio NAF.

The radio station gave crucial information during a diphtheria outbreak in January 2018 and helped inform refugees to take precautions during the monsoon season when aid agencies feared a huge cholera outbreak. The recordings were turned into weekly radio shows at Radio NAF’s base in the nearby town of TekNaf. Since the refugee camps have no radio reception, Abdullah plays the broadcasts at “listener clubs”, where residents gather to listen to show recordings.

As the humanitarian crisis enters its 16th month, residents in the camps have begun to demand a greater say in their future. On November 26, ARSPH issued a statement saying: “These decisions were taken without consultation with us. We are tired to hearing from members of the international community and UN when people keep saying the Rohingya community don’t have leaders. We want to be consulted.”

Meanwhile, news from Thailand is that Rohingya still in Rakhine state continue to seek ways to get out. Several years ago thousands were fleeing by boat down the Andaman Sea to try to get work in Malaysia or other states where life is less dangerous and oppressive.

Some refugees, who pay bribes to work “under the radar” in Thailand, have paid large sums to get children or relatives out via an overland route through Yangon and Mae Sot, where they can quietly sneak into Thailand and be relayed to destinations as far south as Songkhla or Malaysia.

Families have reportedly sold property in Rakhine state and “greased palms” every step of the way to try to find a better life outside of their troubled homeland, sources say.

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