COX BAZAR: The one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are packed like sardines in 33 camps in Cox’s bazar district in South Eastern Bangladesh.

A typical Rohingya refugee camp is a huge mass of rickety shanties of various sizes and shapes haphazardly built on hillsides and valleys. Vehicles and humans compete for every inch of space on the winding pathways which also serve as garbage dumps.

But despite the harsh living conditions and the traumatic experience of being driven out of their homes in the Rakhine region of Myanmar, the refugees are cheerful.

The markets in the camps are a beehive of activity, with all the daily necessities being procured from outside and sold by the refugees themselves.

“They don’t wait to be served. They organize things themselves,” a camp official told a party of foreign journalists who visited the camps on Tuesday. .

The women too are up and about and are dressed tastefully. The children, both boys and girls, appear to be well fed. One of them even burst into a tuneful song when a Turkish TV journalist asked a bunch of kids if anyone would perform before the camera.

Given the long history of denials and discrimination in their native Myanmar, the Rohingyas appear to be experts at putting up with adversity and making the best of what they have.

The other aspect which makes them a confident people is the fact that they get remittances from family members working in the Middle East, said Mijonur Rahman, a top rehabilitation official who has been working with Rohingyas refugees since 2017. It was in 2017 that 700,000 Rohingyas poured into Cox’s Bazar following a major army offensive against them in Myanmar

“Many of the refugees have family members working in the Middle East. The money is sent through non-banking channels as the Bangladesh government does not allow the refugees to open bank accounts,“ Rahman added.

The refugees get free rations (rice and lentils) thanks to the World Food Program. Aid comes from other national and international agencies too. Medical clinics are there in all camps. The refugees also get cash to meet other expenses.

“Rules do not permit them to leave the camps and work outside. We engage them in construction and other works within the camps and pay them for the work done. But still they go out and earn. We are unable to stop them,” Rahman said.

Initially, the Bangladesh government was unwilling to give them schools for higher education as the main aim of the government has been to send them back to where they belong, namely, Myanmar. But now higher grade schools are being established, albeit reluctantly.

Rahman pointed out that the refugees have penetrated the local labor market to a great extent because they work for less wages than the locals.

“Then there is the environmental damage being done. This is a reserved forest area, and a habitat for elephants. Deprived of their habitat wild elephants are now attacking the camps. Fourteen people have been killed by elephants.”

“Furthermore, Cox’s bazar, which was a tourist attraction earlier, now attracts none because of the Rohingya influx,” Rahman pointed out.

Bangladesh as a whole is yet to be tourist destination. The only area in it which was and could be a destination, namely Cox’s Bazar, has now been ripped apart by deforestation forced on the authorities by the influx of one million people from Myanmar.

Asked if the government has a Plan B in case Myanmar does not take the refugees back and insists on calling them “Bengali” migrants from outside, the official said: “We have only one plan, Plan A, whch is to repatriate them in toto, as soon as possible.”

But in the same breath he conceded that the Myanmar regime has given no hint whatsoever that it will take the refugees back.

The Bangladesh government is pinning its hopes on the international community to mount pressure on the Aung San Suu Kyi regime to take the Rohingyas back.

“We appeal to the media to highlight the heavy burden that over-populated Bangladesh is carrying by accommodating one million refugees and get influential countries to pressurize Myanmar to take them back,” Rahman said.

He said that the US and China would have to change their attitude to the issue, and look at the problem from Bangladesh’s point of view also.

Rahman refused to answer a question on India’s pro-Myanmar stand on the Rohingya issue, But another official said that with India refusing to accommodate the 40,000 refugees who had entered the country, these people have been treking back to Bangladesh.

The problem is that all the three governments – those of Myanmar, India and China, see the Rohingyas as potential Islamic radical and terrorists rather than as victims of genocide.

It is not only the Bangladesh government, but the refugees themselves who are desperate to go back to their homes, hearths and agricultural fields in the Rakhine State in Myanmar.

This is so even in the case of those who live quite comfortably in clean houses with sanitary facilities in the only “planned” colony for the Rohingyas.

“The conditions here are good. But I am wasting my time. I want to go back to paddy cultivation which I was doing back home,” said Sirajuddin father of two children.

Sirajuddin’s house is semi-permanent but is nicely done. The organized colony has a cleaner environment with a modern waste disposal system. In course of time, other camps too will also get modernized, as the international community is generous with financial contributions. So far, US$ 951 million has been pledged.

But humanitarian aid is not what the refugees want.

“We do not want international humanitarian aid. We are thankful to the Bangladesh government for putting us up here. But we do not need Bangladesh’s financial assistance. What we want is international pressure on Myanmar. We want to go back, recover our citizenship and live with dignity and with human rights. The world should assist us in reaching this very legitimate goal,” asserted Sawyadullah , one of the leaders of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARPH), located in Ukhiya in Cox’s Bazar district.

“We are not Bengalis as the Maynmar government says. We are Rohingyas who have been living in Arakan for centuries. After gaining independence from the British, the Myanmar government had officially recognized the Rohingyas as a minority community with full citizenship. Rohingyas were in government service and were represented in parliament too. But in 1993, the government nullified the citizenship and white Identification Cards were issued to us,” Sawyadullah said.

Restrictions were placed on construction of buildings and on movement. A variety of other discriminatory acts led to the flight of 250,000 Rohingyas to Bangladesh in the early 1990s.

“To prove our citizenship , we had to fill in a form which had queries that ought to be put to foreigners entering Myanmar. One of the questions was: Date of Arrival in Myanmar,” Sawyedullah pointed out.

Sirajunnissa ,who had lost a family member during the military action, said that with troops all over the place in their homeland, Rohignya women felt very unsafe.

“ In government hospitals male doctors were examining females in callous disregard of our culture and sensitivities,” she said.

According to another leader, Mohibullah, over 10,000 Rohingyas have been killed so far in military action since the early 1990s. The modesty of 3000 women were violated. Seventy five thousand houses had been damaged or destroyed. The total loss is about US$ 70 billion, Mohibullah claimed.

(Cover Photo courtesy DHAKA TRIBUNE)