A million people trapped in a stateless future

By Bjørn Bang Jakobsen

The wheels spin in the mud until the white Toyota gets a grip and starts to roll out of the camp.  We are on our way home.  On the other side of the car window – in the mud – stands 6 year old Hasma.  She waves and sends a teasing but vulnerable smile.  The distance is greater now; during the entire stay the little refugee girl has not been more than two meters away from our camera.  Hasma has put on a beautiful dress with tulle and flowers pasted on.  There is something slightly out of place about it. Standing there she resembles a soaked princess in limbo.  Her feet are covered in mud.  It is raining hard and the drops drip from her tiny nose.

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6 year old Hasma stand in the pouring rain in the world’s largest refugee camp. 

The rain reduces slightly the smell of sewage from the brown water which is rushing down through the gully where the children are sitting and building sand castles.  The water is a mixture of toilet water and rain water, and just one tiny scratch on one of the thousands of bare toes wadding through the mud  can cause fatal infections.  The lives of refugees here in Cox’s Bazar on the southernmost headland of Bangladesh are more wretched than any other place.  More than one million people are squashed together in a place not much larger than Manhattan.

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With a previously unseen degree of violence, the Burmese military have forced more than a million Rohingya to flee what the UN calls a classical example of ethnic cleansing – even with “hallmarks of genocide”. Towns were burned down and more than 43,000 people are reported missing. Subsequently, innumerable sources have documented how the women were systematically raped and today the majority of all the female Rohingya refugees have been subject to abuse.

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Children left to themselves in Cox’s Bazar may end up playing in the gullies that collect both rain water and sewage.

The whole thing escalated a year ago when more than 600,000 were expelled in a few days.  Hasma and her people were among those who desperately fled to safety after repeated attacks.  After days of wandering through the jungle and wetlands, she and her mother crossed the border with the smaller children in their arms.  The hundreds of thousands of refugees settled down in a forest area in the southernmost part of Bangladesh.  The tragedy resulted in the forest being cleared to make space for the simple huts that are packed together as far as the eye can see.  It was raining when the Rohingya fled a year ago and this year the monsoon arrived on time and with the usual strength.  The trees that were felled are not here anymore to absorb the rain, and what used to be the forest is now turned into a brown mud puddle – full of abandoned humans.

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Rohingya refugees's temporary homes are built of bamboo sticks and tarpaulins and they are often flooded.

We haven’t seen the worst yet

The extent of the disaster was obvious from the second we arrived in Cox’s Bazar.  There are literally people everywhere. People who live on steep slopes and struggle not to lose their homes, their children or their entire life in a landslide.  Lalit Thapa, who met us at the top of a hill, is responsible for DanChurchAid’s disaster work in Cox’s Bazar.  According to him we have perhaps not seen the worst yet, because the biggest cyclones typically hit Bangladesh in the course of the next month.

“Up here we have to dig new canals so the water can run down to the gully without tearing the refugee’s homes apart”, Nepalese Lalit explains while he walks through the knee-high mud over toward a group of men who are planting trees on a very steep slope. Hasma crawls out onto the slope and when the earth slides under her the men laugh aloud.

DanChurchAid is planting thousands of trees in Cox’s Bazar to re-establish the forest and stabilize the slopes around the refugees’ homes.

“The trees are planted principally to stabilize the earth on the slopes, we fill the sand bags with sand and cement to stabilize the buildings and over there we are working on setting up dikes, so we prevent landslides when the storms hit,” we hear from the dripping wet Lalit as he waves his arms to the east and west.  He is standing on top of the hill in Cox’s Bazar where DanChurchAid has built a women’s centre, the only place where men are not welcome.  This is where women and girls, who have been abused, can find peace or get training and trauma treatment.  Lalit Thapa’s job is to ensure that the women can go to and from the centre safely and that the building doesn’t collapse when the wind and rain do their best to tear the bamboo poles apart.

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When DanChurchAid prepares the world’s largest refugee camp for the monsoon rain and cyclones, it is to a large extent volunteer refugees from the camp who build the bridges and dykes which  will protect them from the violent weather. 

Lalit Thapa points up: “We put up solar lamps, so all the women can go to and from the centre on an illuminated path.  When we put the lamps up we use the map the women have made themselves.” Lalit Thapa holds up a map of the camp.  On the map several female refugees have marked the places where they feel particularly exposed to attack or harassment.

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The map shows where in the camp women are especially exposed to attack.  The marks on the map are made by some of the refugee women who receive help from DanChurchAid at the women’s centre.

When the law of the jungle takes over

Even though most of the women in the world’s largest refugee camp have experienced sexual attacks before they sought protection in Bangladesh, Cox’s Bazar is not a refuge.  The Bangladeshi military are responsible for security in the camp, but only from 9 a.m.  until 3 p.m.  This means that DanChurchAid, like all the other organisations – doesn’t have access to the camp when the military go home to their barracks.  As soon as it is dark, jungle law prevails and the lack of electricity becomes only too obvious.

An 18 year old girl, Sanware, who also has lived as a refugee in Bangladesh since August last year, explains that the fear of being raped is constant, but the fear increases when the sun goes down:

“Darkness is the worst.  There are many attacks in the dark and without light I don’t dare to leave my tent after sunset – not even to go to the toilet”, says 18-year-old Sanware.

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There is no electricity in Cox’s Bazar.  According to Sanware who is 18 this means that the risk of being raped or kidnapped is especially high at night.

In order to respond to Sanware’s and other women’s fear, DanChurchAid has distributed more than7,000 solar lamps recently, and according to Lalit the light from the solar lamps also helps to improve the general safety in the camp.  “The monsoon turns paths into rivers, and landslides are everyday occurrences. The rain is so violent that we have to prevent a potential disaster the whole time.  At the same time there has to be correlation in our relief effort, which is why we are very focused on making the bridges and roads leading to the women’s centre safe to use.”

Protect yourself

During the last year the population of the refugee camp at Cox’s Bazar has risen to over one million, and the density of the population means that life in Cox’s Bazar is exposed to a long series of dangers.  For most of the Rohingya the summer and winter have been the first of their kind in Bangladesh, so they are not familiar with the weather conditions affecting the southern part of the country.

The extreme weather causes sanitation problems, because the sewage from toilets gets mixed with rain water – even drinking - water when the floods are worst, and this spreads disease to an unimaginable degree.

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Rohingya children still play with water, but drinking water is too often mixed with sewage.

In order to improve security and hygiene, DanChurchAid trains young refugees in disaster preparedness so they can go from home to home and inform refugee families about what they can do to protect themselves.

One of them is 19 year old Mohammed Yanus who also fled in August last year. “A home here in the camp is a mixture of a tent and a hut, and they are all too fragile and would not survive a cyclone.  That is why I’m pleased to prepare my people for the challenges ahead”, says the young man with thick, dark hair and high cheek bones.

Disaster calendars are distributed to refugee families so they know what time of year they have to prepare for land-slides, cyclones, fires and even wild elephants.

Mohammed  Yanus visits a family of nine in a little tent and explains enthusiastically how they should deal with everything from floods to cyclones, fires, earthquakes, epidemics and not least the wild elephants who tramp through the former forest a couple of times a year. The gathering includes several older men and they sit politely and listen to the younger man’s advice and guidance.  One of the older men tell about when there was water half a metre over the ground inside the tent, and points to a stain on the tent canvas.  “Everything was wet – everything”, he shouts and the rest of the family nods.

Rohingya only get the most basic

Even though conditions in Cox’s Bazar are indescribable in the worst way, it is inspiring to see and hear how Hasma and the other children never stop playing, and how women sit in the rain and wash their children, even though it seems hopeless when the walk home goes through the mud.

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Shafiq washes her son, even though it is hard to keep him clean in the muddy camp.

When the hundreds of thousands of refugees poured in across the border last year DanChurchAid’s humanitarian adviser, Maja Tønning was one of those who helped to get the relief moving.  After a year, the Rohingya still survive exclusively on basic relief, and according to Maja Tønning the Rohingya’s endurance is amazing. “Despite the most miserable conditions I have experienced, these people just have the ability to fight and endure. I see it all over the world, but the Rohingya are a classic example of the tremendous will-power it takes to survive as a refugee”.

Maja Tønning emphasises at the same time that the relief effort is much too basic: “There is an enormous potential for organisations like DanChurchAid to improve the conditions in this – the world’s largest refugee – camp but our options are very limited and we can only provide the most basic relief”, says Maja Tønning and explains that the authorities in Bangladesh set major limitations on what help the humanitarian organisation may offer the refugees.  This means that, for example, it is illegal to pour a foundation under the refugees’ hut even though it could save thousands of lives when the storms rage.

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Safe spaces for women and children in the refugee camp in Cox's Bazar

Bangladesh is understandably afraid that the refugees’ conditions will be better than the conditions they came from in Myanmar”, says Maja and an ironic smile spreads across her mouth before she continues.  “Seriously! – the conditions we see here are so wretched and hopeless that we have a human obligation to do more”.

Rohingya struggle to maintain their normal life and their dignity, even though their situation is very unstable. 

They all dream of nationality

Bangladesh has received more than a million Rohingya refugees at the same time as the country obviously has its own problems to deal with.  It is one of the world’s most densely populated countries and this alone makes it remarkable that the Bengali have made room for the Rohingya.  But after a year the government in Bangladesh is beginning to be impatient – there is no progress with the repatriation process.

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58% of the Rohingya are children under 18 years of age and there is a great need for education for the many refugee children.

Mohammed Yanus, Sanware and even 6 year old Hasma dream of citizenship in Myanmar, but there is little hope of returning home to a normal life.  The few Rohingya who have tried to return to Myanmar have, according to the New York Times, ended up in areas surrounded by barbed wire.

When we got here, we drove through villages that are located close to the refugee camp.  Poor villages  that could be mistaken for refugee camps.

Now we are on the way back and the smooth transition from refugee life to village life shows that Bangladesh cannot manage the Rohingya’s future alone.

We drive out of the camp. Away. Home.  I can just glimpse Hasma in the wing mirror’s horizon.  Relief workers come and go to the world’s largest refugee camp, but where will Hasma go?  Was this just the first of a long series of years as a refugee?  

August 2018, Press release by 45 local, national and international NGOs: One year into the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh

You can find (and download) a PDF version here

Read the Danish version of the longread here: Rohingyaerne sidder fast i en statsløs fremtid