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A stranded struggle

Thousands of desperate Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh's southeastern refugee camps for decades have been attempting the perilous boat voyages to reach Malaysia. In a 50-50 gamble on human lives, a large number of these people have already perished in the sea. Also, an unknown number are still missing.

Rohingya refugees walk on a beach at Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh

Taking rickety boats on a perilous sea only to try the dried up luck for a better future; this is not new for the Rohingya refugees living in the overcrowded camps in Bangladesh’s southeast. Not for at least the past three decades.

Let’s try a test. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Try to think that in the next one month you will be cut off from all the regular civic facilities you are currently enjoying. Your comfy high commode in the bathroom included. Also, you will be embargoed from travelling; you cannot go to the next building or neighbourhood to see your friend or even a dying relative. Why? Because it is not permitted.

Also, a cherry on the top of all your woes -- you cannot work. You cannot earn money. It does not matter how physically, technologically or academically eligible you are. You are barred from working. Full stop. You will be living by consuming a limited ration that is provided upon someone else's mercy. 


Additionally, your children will not be allowed to study any meaningful curriculum. That means if s/he was studying in grade nine before, it will not get counted anymore. All kids aged within a certain age range (maybe between five and 14 or whatever) will pretty much learn the same education. And what lies ahead at the end of that tunnel? They will turn into you! With all the restrictions mentioned above jingling around their necks.


Tell me now. Did you feel an urge to gasp for air there? If your answer is ‘No’, then I don’t want to further argue with you; you must have a piece of rock behind that ribcage of yours. But if you bat an eyelid, even for once, in discomfort thinking of the terms I mentioned, then let’s continue reading. Congratulations (or not)! You have successfully put yourself in the shoes of the Rohingya refugees! 

I asked you to do it for 30 days. That also at your very own comfort zone -- in your residence. Now think of the 1.1 million Rohingya refugees living in the hilly Cox’s Bazar camps. Many of them have been living there since the 1970s. The largest portion of some 740,000 who escaped their homes and arrived in 2017, have already passed over five years in the dirt and mud under scorching sun, damping downpours and bone-chilling cold. Who does not know that by now, right?

Majority of them do not have work. I asked around a random sample of 10 men aged between 16 and 50 a few months ago. Their routine are mostly the same:-- Waking up early in the morning, praying, eating rice, loitering around in the camp’s roadside shops, going to receive rations from the UN shed, bring home the ration, loitering around in the roadside shops once again, praying, eating lunch, sleep, waking up for afternoon prayer, have a tea or 3-in-1 coffee pack, loitering around again, evening prayer, eating dinner, night prayer and then going to sleep.

What is on the next day?


The same damn routine! 


Imagine going on like this for five years in a row. Sounds impossible right? But unfortunately, that is what they are doing. Able men and women, young blood; sitting idle for days. It is only understandable how lucrative these rickety boat voyages would look to their eyes.

I have been wandering in those overcrowded camps for years now. During every single of my visits I keep thinking 'how are they living here'? In a camp named Hakimpara, you have to walk long stairs uphill to reach the top. As you stand on the last step on top of that hill and turn your face eastwards, you would see the mountains of Arakan. The homes of these million Rohingyas are just behind those hills.


Most Rohingyas, especially those who were isolated at home and now stranded abroad are either illiterate or poorly educated. Most of them are unable to express their pain. But deep inside they cry a river every day when the sun rises, as if from their burnt down homesteads from those eastern hilly horizons. I again try to contemplate the same fate for myself. I cannot be as harsh to myself, even in the imagination, as what these fateless people have faced.

Narcotics, arms and extremism are perhaps becoming rampant within the refugee camp. You have to put your neutral hat on to ask the question: "Why?" Otherwise you would only find a partial answer which is not what we are looking for.

Couple of months ago, I interviewed a retired three-star general in Bangladesh. He was a key decision maker, at least he was sitting for a while in the chair, about many things including the latest Rohingya exodus and their management. He used the term "ticking bombs" while he was describing the large number of youths idly messing around in the camp alleys. Exploitation is very common. Many of these kids simply want to be free. After a while, by hook or crook. 

But what is the most civil way out of this nightmare? 

Nobody replies. Neither the international community nor the Myanmar government.

Every time you would ask a UN diplomat a serious question about these Rohingya people's fate; you would probably hear the same old same old — "The solution lies in Myanmar bla bla bla…" Try to talk to the military junta in the Buddhist majority. They have been ducking these questions so eloquently that you would not get an opportunity for a second question. Then who will answer for these people?


The scapegoat, every single time, becomes the host -- Bangladesh.


There is a limit of responsibility that one can persist. When that limit is maxed out, the person or the state starts to react. It is very natural. While I understand the woes of the refugees, it would be wrong to deny the problems the host community is stating every day. The refugees; they clearly can see how unwelcome they have become to their Muslim neighbours through years. Imagine how you would feel to be in a position when your last resort would turn their backs towards you. What will happen when your back will touch the wall and there would be nowhere to go but only option would be the south -- to the perilous sea?

Now, tell me. How can you blame those anguished souls who take the risk of dangerous, rickety boat voyages? Once they feel that there is nothing to lose – even 50 percent chance of death seems understandable – but if they can reach the coast of Malaysia, they will be gainer, it would put the last nail to their miseries' coffin; how will you stop such desparate people with such suicidal mindsets? 

Telling you the truth – it is a matter of fact that confirming civic lives for every Rohingyas is only possible in pen and paper. In practicality, they are a stateless and fateless minority who actually have no true guardian. Bangladesh itself is a tiny country with an overcrowded population. There are crucial diplomatic terms glued to its goodwill therefore it simply cannot kick out the million-strong people in the refugee camps.

I beg to the decision makers in the People's Republic of Bangladesh! Please withdraw the work embargo from the Rohingyas. Build factories inside the refugee camps. Enable them. Make them work. Let them be busy with something in life. Let them earn their rations. There will be debates; why empower the refugees when a large chunk of Bangladeshis remain unemployed? The answer is: it is not for the sake of enabling the Rohingyas. Rather it is to save them from being exploited, refraining them from becoming self-destructive. Stopping them from being national and regional security threats to the host country and neighbours. And about so many things that we do not yet know. 

Think practically. They are not going anywhere anytime soon. My words may sound diplomatically naive and null. But that is the reality. We do not want any more mass graves in Thai jungles. We do not want bodies floating in the Bay of Bengal. Not anymore. ##

Disclaimer: This is an opinion and does not contain the view or stance of the author's employer. Please do not use, reuse, publish or republish this article or fragments of it elsewhere without prior contact with the author.

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