The Rohingya have been on the run from their homes in Myanmar for the past forty years. Following Mayanmar’s intensified military operation in August 2017, some 6,700 Rohingya, including around 730 children under the age of five, were killed after the violence broke out, according to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Other reports claimed that since August 25, 2017, nearly 24,000 Rohingya Muslims have been killed by Myanmar’s state forces. And some 700,000 Rohingya people have since been displaced from their homes.
Very few among the Muslim minority remain in the country. The exiled Rohingya now live uncertain, disrupted lives in scattered refugee camps in countries like Bangladesh, Malaysia, India, Thailand, and elsewhere. They do not have any passports, or any kind of travel documents, and they cannot work, with only a minority having UNHCR registered refugee cards which hold little sway.
Guardian Journalist Kaamil Ahmed in his recently published book, I Feel No Peace (Hurst) writes extensively about the disrupted lives of Rohingya refugees living abroad. Ahmed, who has previously lived and reported from Bangladesh, conducted extensive firsthand interviews with the families and members of the persecuted community living in refugee camps in Bangladesh and elsewhere. In addition to putting their tragic exodus in a historical context, he also brings out stories of resilience from within the scattered community, showing how they also survive against all odds and despite all the sufferings.
In an interview with Majid Maqbool, Kaamil Ahmed talks about how the Rohingya community remains stateless everywhere, vulnerable to human traffickers and criminal gangs in the refugee camps abroad; how the international community has done little to rehabilitate them and find a permanent solution to their tragic existence, and why they will again be at risk if they’re forced to hastily return and settle back in Myanmar. If there isn't real safety, justice and protection for the Rohingya, Kaamil says, they will again be forced to flee their homes to refugee camps in Bangladesh.
You write that Rohingya refugees are “stateless everywhere” and without passports or travel documents. More than 700,000 Rohingya people left their homes in Myanmar after August 2017 and took refuge in countries like Bangladesh, Malaysia, India, and Thailand,. What is their current condition, scattered in refugee camps in host countries that tend to see them as a burden?
The Rohingya remain stateless. At best, they have paperwork that recognises them as refugees but even then they are denied to right to move freely, work or go to school. They cannot travel if they want to seek safety or opportunity elsewhere. In Bangladesh this month they will face the second food rations cut this year because the WFP is underfunded but they cannot go and work to supplement their food because the authorities have banned them from working – this makes under-nutrition likely for so many of them.
In Malaysia, they've faced increasing hostility which sometimes has turned into outright aggression. Just before Eid, a group of families who had lived in a village for a decade without problems were suddenly forced out by neighbors. In India, many of them are in detention camps. I was just speaking to one Rohingya man who was arrested almost three years ago by Indian authorities and given a one year sentence but has remained in a detention centre in Assam. Their statelessness means they don't have a single safe route to escape the conditions they face, so their only choice is to either accept violence from the Myanmar state or a desolate existence in Bangladesh's refugee camps. They've become easy targets for media trying to stir nationalist sentiment and looking for someone to blame for deeper problems in society and that has also spread online, where the Rohingya are so easily targeted by bots and disinformation campaigns.
What has been the role of international aid agencies and international bodies like the UN when it comes to taking concrete steps to protect the Rohingya community inside Myanmar and the exiled Rohingya refugees living uncertain lives in inadequate refugee camps in countries like Bangladesh?
The world has done very little to help the Rohingya. It has helped to provide the very basics - shelter and food - but even that support is rapidly shrinking. Bangladesh has almost a million Rohingya to shelter but the aid to support them is drying up. There's been no work towards a longer-term solution. Right now we see talks about a pilot repatriation project but Myanmar is now back under the rule of the military who have been killing the Rohingya for decades. That military has done nothing to improve conditions for the Rohingya. And there's been really very little progress in compelling them to make things better. We've seen several attempted repatriations fail already, so it's hard to tell what will happen now, but even if some Rohingya go back, it's very likely they'll be returning to a Myanmar that is as dangerous for them as ever. Whether on ensuring long-term safety and justice for the Rohingya or simply standing up for better conditions in the camps, the international committee has achieved no more than the basics.
You write in the book that Rohingya refugees are also being exploited and lured by human traffickers and criminal gangs to undertake perilous journeys to remote places in countries like Malaysia in search of better work opportunities and future. How has the human trafficking industry taken advantage of the uncertainty and statelessness of this community forced to live away from their homes in temporary refugee camps in other countries?
The human traffickers prey on Rohingya despair and offer them a bit of hope. They sell them a dream of another place, far from the refugee camps, where they're free to work and find opportunity. They don't tell them about the struggles most Rohingya find when they arrive or about the dangers of the journey itself. There are some Rohingya who know that there is danger along the way, because they've heard from others, but they are so desperate that they're willing to risk it. But it's not just about the traffickers convincing Rohingya to take dangerous journeys - they're often tricking them by changing the terms along the way. Instead of simply taking money to smuggle money from one place to the next, they'll hold them hostage somewhere along the way and demand ransoms from their families. Everything is about how they can extract as much profit from Rohingya who are just desperate for a bit of hope.
There are reports that Bangladesh and Myanmar are organizing the return of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh back to Myanmar’s Rakhine State which is apparently happening without consultation with the refugee community. What are the dangers of such a hasty return? Will the Rohingya refugees be again at risk if they return to their homes and settle back in Myanmar?
In 1978 and the early 1990s, there were two other military operations that forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to Bangladesh. On both occasions, the majority of Rohingya were sent back to Myanmar. Each time, the next military operation has forced more Rohingya to Bangladesh than before. If there isn't real safety, justice and protection for the Rohingya, how do we know that the same won't happen again? The return talks we've seen so far are not even about allowing the Rohingya to return to their homes - they were never rebuilt after they were burnt down and some now even house military compounds instead - so what is it they're returning to? Being sent to camps rather than their actual villages shows how far Myanmar is from being safe. Even the recent Cyclone Mocha showed the dangers they face - dozens of Rohingya in Myanmar died because they weren't allowed to leave the IDP camps they were herded into a decade ago. The dangers for them in Myanmar are not just from direct military violence but also because they're not allowed to move - not to go to hospital, not to escape a cyclone.
Women and children of Rohingya living in refugee camps are particularly vulnerable to getting exploited. The host countries have done little to mitigate their sufferings and meet the educational needs of Rohingya children, as you write in the book, fearing it will create a self-sufficient generation within the camps which they don’t want. How difficult has it been for the refugee community to protect their children from getting exploited by traffickers and other criminal gangs in refugee camps while also trying to continue their education?
The Rohingya in the refugee camps constantly fear for their children. When they're not allowed to work or seek education, they have few options and that's made worse when you have food rations being cut. Predators, whether in the form of traffickers or gangs, will always be able to use that to entice young people. Criminality in the camps can often be over exaggerated, especially by local media, but it's true that lack of opportunity has made some young people susceptible to joining gangs. These aren't young people seeking a lavish lifestyle but who are desperate and lost and being sold a quick solution to their woes that their parents have little ability to counter.
You write that there has been little progress in seeking a permanent solution to the Rohingya crisis that would ensure either the safe return of refugees or the safety of the Rohingya community inside Myanmar. Do you think the international community has resigned itself to their fate, leaving them to their uncertain, disrupted lives in refugee camps in countries? What more can be done to find a permanent solution and peacefully rehabilitate thousands of exiled Rohingya refugees back to their homes?
The Rohingya need to be given their say. Too many people talk for them and not enough to them. Decisions are made about them, not with them. They have made it abundantly clear that they demand citizenship in Myanmar and safety. Citizenship itself does not ensure safety but would have to be part of a completely transformed attitude of the Myanmar state towards the Rohingya - one that includes them as part of the nation and is willing to atone for decades of violence and persecution. It's really hard to look at the last six years and see what the international community has done to help the Rohingya towards a permanent solution.
Majid Maqbool is an independent journalist and writer based in Indian administered Kashmir