Protect our rights: Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

Whether we asked about the possibility of going home to Myanmar or the challenges of life in Bangladesh, every Rohingya – old or young – who our Amnesty International delegation interviewed in the refugee camps said the same thing: human rights.

With the release of our new report, “I Don’t Know What My Future Will Be”, Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh, Amnesty International is echoing that call and looking to the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh, with strong backing and resources from the international community, to ensure that violations end, past abuses are addressed and that the human rights of Rohingya, on both sides of the border, are fully respected and upheld. 

It is a time for solidarity and for action.  There will be many opportunities for Amnesty International supporters to take action and demonstrate that solidarity over the coming weeks and months.

When Amnesty International was in Bangladesh in February of this year, it had been 18 months since the outbreak of the most recent campaign by Myanmar security forces in Rohingya communities in Rakhine State, marked by mass atrocities, including killings, rape, destruction of villages and forced displacement.  The scale and cruelty of the abuses was staggering. A UN Fact-Finding Mission has concluded that it points to an intention to commit genocide on the part of the Myanmar military. 

As they have too many times in the past, Rohingya communities were uprooted and forced to flee into neighbouring Bangladesh. The numbers were unprecedented.  700,000 refugees arrived in Bangladesh during the last few months of 2017, bringing the total number of Rohingya sheltering in the country to around one million.  Bangladesh has rightly been commended for the welcome.  In today’s world there are, undoubtedly, many other countries that would have closed their border.

An older Rohingya man sits in his tent. He is wearing a white kufi, a beige short sleeved button down shirt, and a green and blue stripped wrap.
Soyed Alom, a 60 year-old Rohingya refugee who lives in Cox’s Bazar

At the same time, the Bangladeshi government has made it clear that they hope and expect refugees to return to Myanmar – where there has yet to be changes that would guarantee safety and equality for the Rohingya – in the very near future.  Asked what it would take to encourage him to go back, 60 year-old Soyed Alom put it simply, “when our rights are protected”.  That includes, as a baseline, being recognized as full citizens.

Meanwhile, life in the refugee camps is difficult.  Much of that stems from how crowded the living conditions are.  Refugees are confined to a limited area in SE Bangladesh, where the environment was already fragile before the influx.  Shelters are exceptionally small, virtually on top of each other, and the building materials in many instances are not up to the elements when monsoon season hits.  But there has been reluctance to open up more land and to allow more permanent, sturdy homes, as the Bangladesh government worries that signifies refugees are there to stay. The toll of overcrowding and lack of privacy is clear, leading to stress, depression and health concerns.

Perhaps no other issue, however, frames the consequences of Bangladesh’s determination to restrict rights in the camps as a means of discouraging refugees from staying, than the denial of education to Rohingya children and youth.  Around one-half of the refugee population are under the age of eighteen.  Yet they have no access to official, accredited schools, following a recognized curriculum.  Quite the contrary, the Bangladesh government has repeatedly refused to allow formal schools to be built in the camps and, earlier this year, barred the small number of Rohingya students who had managed to enroll in local Bangladeshi schools from continuing with their education.  Again the government’s fear is that setting up schools will encourage refugees to stay, rather than return soon to Myanmar.

But access to education is not a bargaining chip; it is a human right, enshrined in numerous international human rights treaties.  It is also the source of hope, possibilities and a promising future for Rohingya children and youth.  Instead, young people in the refugee camps talked to us of despair. 

Bibi a young Rohingya girl sits against a multi coloured background, she is wearing a black hijab
Bibi, a 15 year old Rohingya refugee who lives in Cox’s Bazar

Fifteen year-old Bibi talked of her dream to become a doctor, because she want to help her society, country and people.  She asked, “education for all, why not for refugees?” 

Sixteen year-old Saeed said he, “begins every day hoping that it might be different than other days and something might change. But then it turns out to be like every day. There are no classes to attend and nothing to do.”  “How long can this go on”, he wondered.

Meanwhile fear mounts every time that Bangladesh and Myanmar signal that they are ready to begin conducting so-called “voluntary” repatriation.  All those refugees who were summoned for repatriation earlier this month made it clear that they do not consider it safe and are not prepared to go home.

A Rohingya boy stands next to a green door in his family's tent. He is wearing a brown jacket, a white hat, and a purple wrap around his waist.
Saeed, a 16 year old Rohingya refugee who lives in Cox’s Bazar

Bangladesh is also looking at options for transferring refugees out of the Cox’s Bazar area and has invested considerable money, with apparent backing from the Chinese government, in developing a low-lying island in the Bay of Bengal, with plans to initially accommodate 100,000 refugees.  The island, Bhashan Char, is prone to flooding during monsoon season and would leave refugees isolated and essentially imprisoned offshore.  Most refugees Amnesty International interviewed made it clear that they would choose return to Myanmar over being forcibly transferred to Bhashan Char.

Just last week in refugee camps across Bangladesh and in rallies and demonstrations around the world, Rohingya marked the second anniversary of the atrocities unleashed in Myanmar in August 2017.  It was abundantly clear that there has been virtually no progress in pursuing justice and accountability for the terrible crimes that were committed and that basic reforms to grant citizenship and ensure equal rights for Rohingya in Myanmar have gone nowhere.

We cannot and will not relent in the campaign for justice, accountability and human rights in Myanmar.

At the same time, it is abundantly clear that refugees in Bangladesh will not be able to return home anytime soon.  It is time to move beyond an emergency response phase focused only on the basic needs of refugees.  It is time for an approach that instead focuses on ensuring that the rights of Rohingya refugees – including education, healthcare, adequate housing, livelihoods and freedom of movement – are upheld and respected.

Portrait of Rohingya refugee Mohammed, sitting in his tent wearing a black shirt. He has black short cropped hair.
Mohammed, a Rohingya refugee who lives in Cox’s Bazar

When he was forced to stop attending computer classes at a local technical school earlier this year, Mohammed joined with a small group of friends in establishing a refugee rights group.  It was clear to him that his rights were being denied, “just because I am Rohingya and just because I am a refugee.” 

Join us, in solidarity with Mohammed, Bib, Saeed and Soyed, in pressing for the human rights of Rohingya refugees to be fully protected.  Their hope and dream of returning home remains strong. So must protection of their rights.