Rohingya at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh. Photo: AFP

“Migrants and refugees are not pawns on the chessboard of humanity.” – Pope Francis 

The Rohingya have been subjected to persecution, discrimination and torture for decades in Myanmar. In 2017, almost a million of them had to leave their homeland because of fierce human-rights abuses. Consequently, Bangladesh welcomed them. However, three years down the line, the Rohingya are still suffering, still not able to speak up for their rights and still marginalized. 

As things stand today, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh do not have the right to participate in decision-making processes regarding their own lives. This severely impacts their human rights. From freedom of expression, to assembly and movement to health care and education, to facing extrajudicial killings, they have been restricted and left on the periphery of the dignified lives that they seek and deserve. 

Escaping Aung San Suu Kyi’s Myanmar to seeking refuge in Sheikh Hasina’s Bangladesh, the Rohingya face continual suffering. 

Crackdown on freedom of expression

In 2019, the Bangladeshi government cut access to third- and fourth-generation (3G and 4G) mobile-phone access in the towns that are home to the refugee camps. This sent a clear signal to the Rohingya that their movements and freedom of expression would be significantly restricted.

After this move, the authorities also stopped the sale of SIM cards to the refugees, which was impossible to enforce effectively, giving rise to a black market for the cards. 

The government’s justification was that the restrictions would curb criminal networks, but activists feared it would only isolate the Rohingya community further.

Prohibiting access to education

Bangladesh has always made it clear that the Rohingya will not be able to remain in the country. With this in mind, it is intentionally blocking access to local educational institutions for Rohingya children. They are only allowed to attend schools within the camps.

However, Myanmar has stated that it will not recognize the education provided in the camps. This leaves the Rohingya children with no access to Bangladeshi government-recognized schools. They have thus completely lost access to formal education for the last three years, with no hopes of any if it being recognized when they return home.

This is yet another means to curb human rights on a people whose only hopes remain the future of their children and better lives for them. 

Extrajudicial killings

Amnesty International issued a statement expressing deep concerns about a series of extrajudicial executions of Rohingya refugees in the camps.

Allegedly, a member of the youth wing of the ruling Awami League Party was shot dead by a group of Rohingya men. Seven Rohingya individuals were shot as a result in a so-called “gunfight,” which is a common term to disguise what are known to Bangladeshis as extrajudicial killings.

As a result, Amnesty International issued the following statement:

“The killings of the alleged suspects are a serious violation of human rights and reflects disregard for the rule of law. All persons, irrespective of whether or not they are suspected of crimes, have basic human rights guarantees under international human-rights treaties binding on Bangladesh. These include the right to a fair trial and to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

“Human rights are completely disrespected and violated by extrajudicial executions.”

There are thus serious questions as to the well-being of the Rohingya in Bangladesh. Having agreed to accept and shelter them, the Bangladeshi government should be much more accommodating in terms of providing them with the security and education that they need. They are not illegal immigrants, a point the Bangladeshi authorities perhaps forget to acknowledge. 

Bangladesh, being a small emerging economy itself, has taken on the tremendous task of sheltering roughly 1 million refugees. That is highly commendable. Bangladesh wants them to be repatriated and they want to be repatriated. They want to go home, of course, with the conditions that they will be able to live in their country Myanmar, peacefully and freely, exempt from persecution. 

For that to happen, the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar, with help from the United Nations and Association of Southeast Asian Nations, need to work out the political mechanisms. In the meantime, the suffering of the Rohingya must be reduced as much as possible.

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Sabria Chowdhury Balland

Sabria Chowdhury Balland is a political analyst focusing on the politics of the US and Bangladesh in international publications. She is the co-author and editor of Bangladesh: A Suffering People Under State Terrorism (Peter Lang, 2020), A former elected member of the US Democratic Party Abroad, she is currently a board member of The Right to Freedom, a Washington-based non-profit organization working toward peace and democracy in Bangladesh.