Face to Face with Rohingyas – Supporting the Rohingya Refugee Crisis in Cox’s Bazar
Living a ‘nomadic’ life for over a decade, most recently, I have started to wonder if I should stop this madness and quietly settle down in one place. While being an international student and development worker has its perks, the constant change of home and having to start over in a new place can be exhausting. I have dealt with my share of homesickness, cultural shock, language barriers and racism. Not to mention an upset tummy for days with unfamiliar food and lying in bed sick and alone is probably the lowest point of being a ‘nomad,’ doubting whether you made the right choice in the first place. While this might be a familiar territory for my fellow development workers, everyone fights their own battle. Living abroad for a significant amount of time, another challenge the returnee faces is difficulty getting readjusted back to their home – mild identity crisis.
While moving around is challenging and I have a deep respect for people who have travelled across the globe to study/work in places unfamiliar to them, we all have had the choice to eventually return home when we are fed up with moving around the world. I myself made that choice four years ago when I decided to leave Italy and move back to Nepal. Despite initial hiccups and frustration about the system – traffic and air pollution being the worst of all – you eventually get back to the comfort of your familiar language, food and people. You are finally home!
Now, working in a refugee crisis in Cox’s Bazar, where close to a million Rohingyas have no choice but to stay as stateless persons in Bangladesh, makes me realize how lucky we ‘nomads’ are. We have a choice to move or stay. But, here these men, women and children cannot choose to go back home. Having lived in Rakhine State for generations, still, they cannot call Myanmar their home and return when they want. They are victims of systematic violence and have been forced to flee Myanmar to avoid military atrocities.
Refugee Influx in Cox’s Bazar
Since August 2017, over 853,705 Rohingya people have fled violence in Rakhine State seeking refuge in Cox’s Bazar . Close to a million people being displaced is something that is beyond my imagination. According to the United Nations (UN), the Rohingya refugee crisis is the world’s fastest-growing humanitarian emergency. The worst displacement of the people I have seen previously was the temporary displacement of a few thousand people in the aftermath of Nepal’s earthquakes in 2015.A Rohingya woman I interviewed told me that when she and her family fled Myanmar last October, there were 12,000 people together with them crossing the border. They were stuck at the border for over two weeks. Almost everyone I spoke to has a similar story as to why they left their homes – most left when the Burmese military started burning their or their neighbors’ houses and kidnapping their young girls. Others left to avoid their family member being kidnapped or raped.
Women and girls have suffered abuse and sexual exploitation from Myanmar military groups. Many died during the influx due to starvation and other health complications. This is a whole new level of displacement and as the international community gets a grasp on the situation, it is clear that it is not going to be only a humanitarian crisis but will be protracted in nature. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, in his recent visit to Cox’s Bazar, urged the agencies to start preparing for mid-term interventions.
The new arrivals since August 2017 are mostly concentrated within congested sites in Ukhia and Teknaf areas of Cox’s Bazar District, where they outnumber the local population. The Government of Bangladesh allocated over 5,000 acres of forest for the refugees, where tents are set up. Besides the two registered camps, all the other camps are established in the aftermath of the influx and are unregistered. There is an ongoing registration process by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which is expected to be completed in the next 5 months.
My first trip to the refugee camps was filled with anticipation and nervousness. My stomach filled with butterflies, I longed for the one-hour drive from Cox’s Bazar to the refugee camps to come to an end. I was ready to go face-to-face with the people I have so desperately wanted to meet and had spent close to half-a-semester researching and reading about. The road leading up to the camp was a good 5-kilometer of narrow dirt road, slippery, in ankle deep mud – even our four-wheeler could not resist sliding violently, adding to my nervousness. Entering the camps, I was overwhelmed to see the never-ending horizon of haphazardly placed shacks – homes of close to a million people. Seeing the life and movement in the camps, it is hard to believe that just about a year ago, this area used to be a forest with no habitation. The shacks looked weak and can easily be destroyed by violent storms or heavy rainfall. Somewhere between 125-150 agencies are currently working to provide life-saving humanitarian services to the men, women and children in these 30 camps, each with a population of anywhere between 18,000 to 50,000.
The Joint Response Plan for Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis March-December 2018 was established in February and the agencies are coordinating their efforts to address the immediate needs of the refugee population. While the current inflow of refugees has decreased to less than 20/day, the camps are overcrowded, lack basic sanitation services and Bangladesh being one of most floods prone countries, the ongoing monsoon rain means there is a fear of floods and landslides. UNHCR estimates that close to 40,000 refugees will be affected by floods and landslides.
Rohingya refugee women’s and girls’ challenges
Although Bangla and Nepali language share a common root – Sanskrit – and I can understand close to 50 per cent of Bangla, in Cox’s Bazar, a Chittagonian dialogue is spoken, which is very different and even Bangla speaking population cannot understand it completely. But, they do share many common words. The words for ‘water,’ ‘peace,’ ‘fear,’ and numbers are the same as in Bangla and Nepali. With Rakhine State bordering Cox’s Bazar, the Rohingya language and Chittagonian are basically the same. Thus, although it was challenging for me to understand everything Rohingya women shared, I could make sense of a few things. Through my interaction and interviews, I understand that numerous challenges such as safety, security, access to education, health and hygiene facilities persist in the camps. Many families are struggling to meet their basic needs (water, food and strong shelter). Sanitation facilities are shared with many families and women and girls report feeling unsafe accessing the facilities during night time. Adolescent girls have their own struggle with the WASH facilities, especially during their menstruation. There are not enough WASH facilities or they are too far away from the shelters. Furthermore, very few women and girls participate in leadership positions in the camps.Through my work with UN Women in supporting the refugee operations, I have learnt about the various challenges women and girls face during a humanitarian crisis and how to address those challenges.While lifesaving humanitarian support is needed for all members of the affected population, during a crisis, men, women, girls and boys are impacted in different ways. There are several challenges that are unique to girls and women during a crisis that is different from men’s experience. Combined with strict cultural prohibitions, women and girls in general face restricted mobility, lack of safe space, education and skills development opportunities. This affects their access to life-saving assistance, services and information. Thus, when humanitarian relief services are overstretched, women and girls may end up being the last ones to benefit from the services. There are several issues faced by women and girls that make the Rohingya refugee response particularly challenging.
First, Rohingya women and girls have limited mobility and presence in public places. Of the 30 camps, only one camp has a female cap-in-charge and only a few have female deputies and block leaders. Almost all the leadership positions are occupied by men. It is generally customary that when girls reach puberty, they are more likely to be separated from boys, and parents will mostly not send their young girls to educational or recreational activities unless they are girls-only facilities. Adolescent girls have limited mobility and social engagement and are mostly confined to their homes. They often do not go to temporary learning centers, instead staying at home, taking care of younger siblings and doing domestic chores.
Second, the high school dropout rate is high among girls. Studies have shown that the majority of Rohingya girls do not attend school beyond grade 5 and those who do attend up to grade 5 are usually from higher income families. In 2010, more than half of boys and girls age 10-15 in Rakhine State, Myanmar, were out of school, including 57% of girls and 49% of boys. Moreover, the learning centers operated by the Joint Response Partners facilitates only up to grade 5. Some girls I interviewed expressed that they want to continue schooling but are unable to do so because they do not have burkas (full body and face covering dress that Muslim women/girls wear) and there are no learning facilities for girls of their ages.
Third, early marriage is prominent among the Rohingya population. Polygamy and child marriage is not only an element of culture but can also be interpreted as a coping mechanism for poverty and the lack of funds to pay for the schooling of girls. Dowry, although illegal in Islamic law, is practiced in the camps in Bangladesh. A UNHCR report from 2016 shows that more than half of Rohingya girls who have fled Myanmar since 2012, married prior to the age of 18. There is also evidence of child, early and forced marriage among the Rohingya population. A 2015 gender analysis study, with key informant interviews among the 3,000 Rohingya refugees living in Cox’s Bazar’s official refugee camps, revealed that 94 percent of women respondents reported that they did not make decisions about their current marriage, and that 45 percent were married as children.
Fourth, domestic and gender-based violence is prominent among the population. Intimate partner violence is present within the Rohingya community and has been exacerbated by long-term displacement and a lack of livelihoods. Sexual and gender-based violence is widespread in Rakhine State against Rohingya women and girls, and approximately 100-400 incidents are reported on a weekly basis among the new arrivals in the camps in Bangladesh.
UN Women’s support to Rohingya women
Working with the UN Women in Cox’s Bazar has given me the opportunity to both support the coordination of humanitarian work as well as bring the needs of the women and girls directly from the camps to the larger discussion among the humanitarian response actors.
In the Joint Response Plan, UN Women co-chairs the Gender in Humanitarian Action Working Group for the Rohingya Refugee Response and promotes gender-responsive humanitarian action across humanitarian agencies in Cox’s Bazar, ensuring equitable access to humanitarian services. Understanding the importance of gender and keeping the gender dimension in mind allows us to design equitable interventions. Identifying the major challenges that women and girls face during crisis, UN Women works to address the challenges faced by Rohingya women and empower and protect them. UN Women’s strives to support Rohingya women and girls by creating an enabling environment amidst the crisis by providing them opportunities to learn valuable life skills and promote their participation and leadership in the camps.
UN Women’s services to women and girls are managed through safe spaces (formally called Multi-Purpose Women’s Centers), where various activities aimed at empowering girls and women through skill development are conducted. The center works to empower women and girls through various serves, such as:Access to information: any information related to the types of available services and where they can be accessed are available at the center. Women and girls can freely walk-in and inquire about the services available in the camps.
Safe space for women and girls: with a restrictive culture, women and girls do not freely walk around the camps and mostly stay home. The Multi-Purpose Women’s Center serves as a safe space for women and girls to meet new people and make friends. They also get the benefit of various information/awareness sessions on education, nutrition, gender-based violence, and early marriage etc., that are run daily in the center. When women want to get away from their hot and congested tents, they come to the center and often bring their infants – a breast feeding corner and child play areas allow women to visit the center with their young babies.
The UN Women’s center includes livelihoods training service. Women receive two-month tailoring training in the center. About 360 women have received training since February and many are already earning some income. Other livelihoods options such as soap making, mobile phone repair and embroidery works are also being considered and developed.
Psycho-social support and counselling: various activities, workshops and informational sessions are aimed at providing psycho-social support to women in the humanitarian crisis. Women can bring forward their problems and they receive some basic counseling and are referred to more specialized agencies and help networks, if needed. Some of the issues that women bring up are domestic and gender-based violence, substance abuse, trafficking etc. UNFPA runs gender-based violence clinics where women receive various types of support to address these issues.
Leadership development opportunities: The Multi-Purpose Women’s Center currently has 21 women volunteers called Community Outreach Volunteers, who serve as community mobilizers and participate in the door-to door visits gathering the issues women face and presenting them to the camp leaders. As community volunteers, the women receive monthly income. Through the community outreach work, UN Women hopes to develop women’s leadership skills. Furthermore, UN Women is working on developing a training manual for women’s empowerment through leadership and participation. Once the manual is finalized, it will be shared with various agencies and is aimed at training women for leadership roles.
The UN Women operation is slowly growing and since the Multi-Purpose Women’s Center was established in February 2017, close to 15,000 women and girls have benefited. Women enjoy the awareness sessions and various training programs organized at the center. A participant shared that she had never learnt about early marriage and the risks associated with it. Now she is one of the community outreach volunteers and is teaching other girls and women about the harms of early marriage and the importance of education.
The summer Applied Field Experience with UN Women has given me an opportunity to interact with some of the most vulnerable populations in the world. While there are many refugee emergencies in the world, the Rohingyas refugee crisis is one the most complex humanitarian situations that the world faces today. Just a year ago, the suffering of close to one-million Rohingyas is something I read, wrote and spoke about. This summer, I have had the opportunity to touch, feel, see and understand it first-hand. I have felt the heat people live in, the smell people breathe, the dirt road that hundreds of children walk barefoot on, and seen the shabby tent that barely holds a family.
This is not a problem of Myanmar or Bangladesh alone, but the whole of humanity. A failure to take the necessary steps to contain the violence in Rakhine State exacerbated the situation. We failed to stand up for the Rohingyas soon enough and let the problem escalate to this degree, where close to a million people were forced out of their homes. Now that we have people completely dependent on humanitarian support for survival, there is much that needs to be done. While investment in education, health, shelter, livelihoods and food is needed to sustain the humanitarian operation in Cox’s Bazar, only policy change and a political solution can resolve the stateless situation that Rohingyas are living in.
But there is hope. A few months back, UNHCR and UNDP signed two separate Memoranda of Understanding with the Government of Bangladesh and
Myanmar regarding voluntary return of the refugees. However, most refugees do not want to return until their citizenship right and safety is guaranteed. The visit of UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres; Head of the World Bank, Kim Jung Lim and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi in Cox’s Bazar recently received high-level international attention and a commitment from the World Bank on financing refugee operations. These initiatives mark commitments from the UN and development partners to continue fighting for these vulnerable people. However, we will have to wait and see what long-term solution ensuring self-actualization of the Rohingya population will be adopted. With the lack of a safe environment for Rohingyas to return home to, will countries step in to take in the refugees or will they continue living in the shacks fearing for their lives every day? Only time will tell.
This wonderful opportunity to travel all the way to Cox’s Bazar would not have happened without the support of Rotary International.
Thank you Rotary International for the generous master’s fellowship that has allowed me to study at the Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Center as well as to go to Cox’s Bazar for my summer Applied Field Experience.
Thank you, Rotary Nepal District 3292, for sponsoring my fellowship application.
Thank you, UN Women Bangladesh, for the summer internship opportunity. It has been an unforgettable ride.
More photos from Cox’s Bazar Operation
GBV Policy and Advocacy Task Team Inter-Agency Briefing Paper (October 2017), GBV Sub Sector, ISCG, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh
Joint Response Plan for Rohingya Refugee Humanitarian Crisis
Save the Children International and UNICEF (2014) Child Protection Knowledge, Attitudes, and Practices Study Rakhine State, Myanmar.
UHNCR population factsheet June 2018, data2.unhcr.org/en/situations
UN Women- www.unwomen.org
UNHCR and UN Women Gender Assessment in Official Refugee Camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh (2015)
UNHCR, Mixed-movements in South East Asia, 2016, http://reporting.unhcr.org/sites/default/files/UNHCR%20-%20Mixed%20Movements%20in%20South-East%20Asia%20-%202016%20–%20April%202017_0.pdf cited in GBV Policy and Advocacy Task Team Inter-Agency Briefing Paper (October 2017), GBV Sub Sector, ISCG, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh