What’s Needed Next: A Discussion on the Rohingya Refugee Camps of Cox’s Bazar

On June 20, we recognize World Refugee Day—a day to stand in solidarity with millions of people forced to leave their homes to save their lives, escaping towards an uncertain future.

Few communities around the world face more uncertainty than the Rohingya people of Myanmar (Burma). After decades of government persecution and violence, this ethnic minority from Burma’s Rakhine state is truly fighting for its survival: In August, 2017, the military began a brutal campaign of violence. More than 700,000 people fled, and today, around 1 million Rohingya people live in overcrowded refugee camps across the border in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

Photo courtesy of Community Partners International

AJWS’s response to the violence was immediate—and continues today, nearly two years later. Our grantee Community Partners International (CPI) is at the forefront of the crisis, training dozens of Rohingya Community Health Volunteers in the refugee camps to educate their communities about hygiene and provide access to healthcare; working with Bangladeshi organizations to coordinate life-saving services; and advocating for international action so the Rohingya people can safely return home, their human rights protected.

We sat down with Meredith Walsh, CPI’s Country Director of Bangladesh to discuss the ongoing crisis, and what needs to happen next.

AJWS: For someone who has never been there, the massive refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar can be hard to picture. Can you describe what the camps look and feel like now, nearly two years after this crisis began? 

Meredith Walsh: Words truly can’t do it justice. Right now, about a million people are living on a tiny slice of land, essentially on top of each other. Tents are held up by bamboo poles, with no space between them. There’s virtually no privacy, and the alleys, come monsoon season, are completely flooded. You need heavy boots to get around; aid workers often have them, refugees don’t.

Cox’s Bazar has developed into an urban slum environment: market stalls line the major arteries, with barbershops, tailors, phone charging shops. People are selling samosas, clothing and hygiene products. These camps are essentially the sixth largest city in Bangladesh.

AJWS: When we think of refugee camps, we often think of fences and barriers. But I understand Cox’s Bazar is open.

MW: There are 34 different camp areas within the Cox’s Bazar mega-camp complex, and legally the refugees are not allowed to leave their area. But it’s fluid—these camps don’t have fences. And as the Rohingya people look very much like Bangladeshis, they can blend in if they leave to shop at local markets. But if they’re found by Bangladeshi police or the army without a Bangladeshi ID, they can be detained or punished.

Photo courtesy of Community Partners International

AJWS: We most often refer to the Rohingya people in Cox’s Bazar as refugees—but that’s not entirely accurate, correct? 

MW: Yes, the Rohingya people in Bangladesh do not have refugee status. Bangladesh considers them Forcibly Displaced Myanmar Nationals. The Bangladeshi government has its reasons: the political climate is very much about returning the Rohingya to Burma. But refugee status could afford them opportunities to develop skills, have rights to work and get educated, so when they do return home, they’ll be able to integrate back into society more easily. Recognizing them as an official entity is long overdue.

AJWS: CPI’s programs all invite Rohingya people to make decisions about issues that affect their community. Why is that a critical part of your organization?

MW: We believe that any person affected by conflict or any sort of injustice must be the first person to decide their own fate. These community members know the needs of their communities. And practically, culturally and linguistically, the refugees themselves are best placed to provide the services they need.

Photo courtesy of Community Partners International

AJWS: You mentioned that Bangladesh continues to push for repatriation of the Rohingya people. What are the roadblocks to people returning home?

MW: The feedback we receive from the Rohingya leaders we work with is: yes, they want to return to their homeland. Rakhine state is where they’re from. It’s their land, their identities. But they don’t want to return to a situation where they’re not afforded human rights. And there’s very little indication that [these protections] are in place on Burma’s side.

AJWS: What does the world get wrong about this crisis in Burma and Bangladesh? 

MW: There’s a misconception that because the Rohingya are Muslim, they should be more welcomed by Bangladesh, where 90% of the population is Muslim. But that’s misguided. Rohingya people feel they belong in Burma. That’s where they’ve been for centuries, just like hundreds of other groups from before the colonial days, when kingdoms were ruling territories.

AJWS: If you had a loudspeaker with the world’s most influential policy and decision makers listening, what would you tell them? 

MW: The international community needs to use all its powers now to pressure the government of Myanmar to allow a safe, dignified, voluntary return for these refugees, restoration of citizenship rights and accountability and justice for those who perpetrated violence.

Justin JacobsJustin Jacobs is a Senior Marketing and Storytelling Officer at AJWS.