Walking through the muddy paths between the long-houses, hearing the infants cry and seeing boys and girls fetching water, men sitting and desperately looking up at the empty sky which held all their hopes , children playing in the stagnated greenish water behind common toilets and water points, and then again hearing Dhuhr payers fusing into the dusty air and blistering sun, I wondered if there was anything worse than this on earth. ‘This’ was the Kutupalong-Balukhali Expansion Site in Bangladesh, where the Rohingya refugees were living in horrible conditions: proper hygiene practices and physical distancing in the context of the most recent COVID-19 pandemic were near impossible to observe.
Unless witnessed firsthand, it is hard to imagine what the life of millions of refugees across the world look like: those in camps under the night sky lit by flying shells in Yemen; undergoing harsh living conditions in the camps in Turkey and Jordan; in makeshift shelters in Bosnia and Herzegovina in freezing cold temperatures with no proper winter wear; in the camps of Syria, where children played with left-over ammunitions that killed their parents. And then there were the world’s largest refugee camps, home to a situation worse than anything witnessed by the world before, and where over 900,000 Rohingyas – themselves belonging to one of the most persecuted ethnic minorities on earth – survived in unimaginable living conditions in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
On this day for International Refugees, we remember that they are “special” because they have been systematically marginalised, just like the Jews who were systematically marginalised, the Rohingyas’ statelessness is a result of systematic marginalisation too. They have neither the status of ‘refugees’ in the land where they have sought refuge, nor the legitimacy of being identified as ‘nationals’ of the country where they belong to. I for one, believe that we all are born equal and no human is illegal, especially in the land where few generations of your own were born. Indeed, the sweat and blood shed by their ancestors were the secret of the lush green rice fields of Rakhine, which fed the proprietor who raped their mothers, sisters, and daughters, tortured their sons, brothers and fathers, or who spit on their faces when they came his way on those muddy paths that separated the hamlets. And there was a time where Rakhine children and the Rohingya children played in the same waters running across the fields, and married amongst themselves. When democracy shattered into a million pieces after the devastating authoritarian military junta took over power, the sun never seemed to rise again over the green Mayyu mountains , and the waters of the impassable Mayu river and those of the Bay of Bengal were never blessings. What was left was merely a graveyard. The soothing chants of Buddhist monasteries stopped merging with the prayers of the mosque, and instead, all the mosques were partially demolished – becoming covered with green moss and Bodhi-trees over time. Though the mosques had fallen, the Rohingyas continued to pray: they would gather at a house of a Mullah and pray secretly. To travel from one village to the other, where they used to cross feely a decade ago, one had to obtain permission from the Rakhine village administrator, and there were no schools for the boys and girls, for education was a right deprived since the days they could remember. Whilst the Rohingyas in northern Rakhine were living lives absolutely deprived of basic rights – the right to movement, right to education and the right to reliable health-care, the military was encroaching upon the major townships of the region, Maungdaw and Buthidaung. It was two days before I crossed the river to come to Sittwe (on 22nd August 2017), that I was made aware of a horrific Rohingya story: around 100,000 Rohingyas had been confined to makeshift settlements for nearly eight years, and made to live in horrible conditions with extremely inhuman restrictions that had deprived them of their basic human rights. It reminded me of nothing other than the Nazi concentration-camps which I had read about in books and seen in films.
On 24th August 2017, I landed in Paris and tried to contact one of my acquaintances based in Maungdaw to check how he was doing. His phone was not contactable, and I did not hear from him again – until I found out about him later in Bangladesh, more specifically, in the Kutupalong-Balukhali Expansion Site, which is host to approximately 626,500 Rohingya refugees- the largest refugee site currently in the world. – And this was where my acquaintance was now confined to; he had been one of my ex-staff members who had been working as a respectful professional before crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar boarder. But now he was a desperate father who had to wait until the aid agencies arrived to feed his children.
On 24th August 2017, the military crackdown to villages of Northern Rakhine State led to the largest exodus known to the world in the history known to older generations. Hundreds of houses were burnt down to ashes; men, women, children and the elderly were pitilessly slaughtered and shot to death; women were gang-raped before the very eyes of their husbands; infants were killed in the hands of their mothers, and all valuables were looted. These stories echoed of those I heard from the North and South Kivu provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where once not so long ago, the world’s largest refugee camps resided following the Rwandan Genocide. Even then, rape had been systematically used as a weapon of war.
Under the ceaseless August rains, hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas fled their homes on a mortal journey with their loved ones to neighbouring Bangladesh, where today over 909,000 of them are crammed into the world’s largest refugee camp. Aside from the atrocities committed by the Myanmar militia, starvation, disease and fatigue had already claimed hundred thousands lives during the exodus, and numerous infants, pregnant mothers and the elderly could not hold their breath until the men carried them across the border on their own fatigued bodies. Furthermore, ruthless tides and deep waters had also claimed a few hundred of those lives. Collectively, more than 723,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since 25th August 2017. It also assumed that at least 18,000 Rohingya Muslim women and girls were raped, 116,000 Rohingya were beaten, and 36,000 Rohingya were thrown into fires set alight in an act of deliberate arson.
Today while the media focuses on the great cities that have fallen silent , the once-prestigious industries that have been critically affected, and the great economies that are rattling due to COVID-19, the fact that refugees are humans like you and I with hopes and dreams of their own is being increasingly forgotten. This comes at a time when the refugees are compelled to live in camps where there are no minimum required conditions for safeguarding themselves from the next challenge of their lives, and cases of COVID-19 are already emerging in a few sites in Bangladesh. At the time of writing, there is a few feet of water in their temporary shelters, soaking their beddings provided by the aid agencies, and forcing them to seek shelter in safe-houses which simply forget the existence of any physical-distancing rule.
One of the key ways to fight COVID-19 is by washing your hands. But unfortunately, the limited access to clean water, caused by conflict, drought and poverty, implies that hand-washing is not an option for millions of people. And physical distancing, being the next key preventive and containment measure, will not be feasible in a place where there is only a one-inch breathable bamboo-mesh (thinner?) partition?? that separates one family from the other, where women need to wait with their children hours and hours to get ‘Plumpy’nuts’ for their newborns, where several longhouses (containing at least eight families) share one toilet, where women have to wait in queues for half a day under burning sun or pouring rains to receive their free hygiene and dignity kit, where water points are shared among several families, and where children have nothing but stagnated water puddles to play together in. Thus, maintaining physical distance is not an option. In camp conditions, under horrible climatic conditions being deprived wearing masks appropriately has become challenging and wearing masks in those limitations have become rather a risk than a preventative measure. Therefore, though everyone has the right to be protected from COVID-19 and the right to access the health care they want, maintaining good hygiene is challenging and physical distancing is almost impossible. Even with the tireless support provided by aid agencies, the Rohingya still remain extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 in refugee settings. Their lives have not been changed positively since the very day they felt persecuted, and with every challenge added to their harsh lives , they still remain the most persecuted minority on the earth, sequestered in the world’s largest refugee camps – and the world’s voice for them is falling silent. So in these moments, , let us be reminded that they will not be able to fight this next battle without our support. . And in addition to the Rohingya camps, there are many more refugees around the world who are exposed to high risks, atop the horrible conditions they live in. And the worst of the pandemic is yet to come.
You need not be a refugee to hear their heartbeat, as they are like you and I with only one difference: they are looking for a place where the value of their lives is recognised, their identity is accepted, where they can raise their children without fear. They are in search of a place they can call ‘home’ and a place where they could wholeheartedly feel they belong to. No human being is illegal and refugees have the same rights as you and I: and the right to live in conditions where one can stay protected from COVID-19 and the right to access timely healthcare are certainly among them.
Many people around the world still subscribe to the myth that COVID-19 pandemic affects everyone without discrimination. While that may be partially true, it should be highlighted that it also affects some more than others – and refugees and stateless people are indubitably at a relatively greater risk of being victimised by the disease as evinced earlier in this article. No human being is illegal, and to prove one’s humanity with papers should not be a requirement.