Inside The Rohingya Refugee Camps: Circumstances beckon prudence and vision
From an unprecedented shutdown of activities due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the country is gradually moving to a new normal situation. Although the spectre of the second wave of the contagion looms large, road, rail and air communications are being resumed, shopping outlets are beginning to see customers, mills and factories are slowly resuming production and construction sites are steadily getting active as internal migrants desperate for jobs flock to the urban centres. Many services that were suspended due to the outbreak of the pandemic are gradually being restored.
Like the rest of the country, life in the Cox's Bazar-Ukhiya-Teknaf region has also begun to pulsate. The huge success of the local administration in enforcing a total shutdown, restricting humanitarian responses to critical activities and barring the movement of people and vehicles, have yielded handsome results. It slowed the spread of the virus and provided opportunities to shore up required public healthcare facilities, including establishing isolation and treatment centres for both Rohingya refugees and the locals.
There is little room for complacency. The congested nature of the dwellings in camps has made it virtually impossible for the refugees to maintain social distancing. There is general reticence to use protective gear. The idea that only divine intervention can cure the disease is pervasive.
The negative perception associated with the virus contributes to a general reluctance to visit clinics for test or treatment, particularly for fever and other Covid-19 like symptoms. Even those suffering from non-Covid-19 symptoms, as a result of other illnesses, avoid visiting clinics for fear of being stigmatised. The situation becomes more complex with brewing discontent and tension among the host community that refugees will spread the virus. Disease epidemics have historically been used to create divisions between groups of people and to assign blame.
The emphasis on Covid-19 appears to have overshadowed other critical health needs, such as routine immunisation, mental health services, maternal/child health services, etc. Diphtheria cases are being reported. These types of epidemics, especially of preventable illness, can in turn erode trust in health services and create a feedback loop where healthcare is not sought or services are not utilised. Enhancing trust, through positive and effective risk communication, can help mitigate this, but only if other health services are provided.
Poor quality of services including non-availability of medicines, language barriers and long hours of waiting also discourage service seekers from accessing healthcare facilities. Therefore, there is an urgent need to improve the quality of services and for decisive action to restore regular medical services through adequate mobilisation of resources.
In January, the Bangladesh government's change in policy, which finally allowed education and skills training for Rohingya children, was widely appreciated. Notwithstanding the restrictions that the education must be informal and must not use the Bangla language, it was a refreshing departure from a previous stance that breached Bangladesh's obligations according to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. One hopes that this is the beginning of efforts to address existing critical gaps in refugee access to education and skills development opportunities, and will eventually lead to "access to appropriate, accredited and quality education" for all children of the area, including Rohingya children.
The outbreak of Covid-19 has delayed the implementation of the new education and skills training programme. There is an urgent need to gear up efforts, with adequate mobilisation of resources by the international community, so that Rohingya children are not deprived further in their pursuit to realise their innate potentials. Retention of skills requires their application. The next logical step could therefore be planning to engage the refugees in income generating activities.
Education not only provides children with the opportunity to advance in their career, it also enables them to think clearly, make a distinction between good and evil, claim their rights and face challenging situations. An educated, informed and engaged youth will be less prone to irrational ideas, including those of religious and sectarian bigotry and violent extremism. Education not only shapes individuals' mental abilities to its fullest potentials, it contributes to the development of their talents, instills self confidence and empowers them. It is in such a context of harnessing their human potential that the government may reconsider allowing the re-enrolment of enterprising and talented Rohingya youth who secured admissions on merit in formal institutions, continued their studies without any public assistance but were subsequently de-registered through a government fiat.
The recent spate of violence, resulting in the death of five refugees and the injury of scores of others, has been a worrisome development. Although local media have interpreted the incident as "factional fighting" within the Rohingya community, its links with the drug trade, involving powerful persons of the mainstream community, is also a possibility. These incidents are harmful not only for the security and safety of refugees but also for their reputation and public perception. Needless to say, such incidents reinforce the Burmese position that the Rohingya are a violent group harboured by Bangladesh. Robust efforts to ensure law and order are vital. Also, there is a need for proper investigations into the incident.
Another important matter of deep concern for the refugees has been the renewed call by a section of the media and intellectuals for the relocation of 100,000 refugees to Bhashan Char. Presumably to garner support, impressive accounts and footages are being made available in the public domain of what was earlier perceived to be a hush-hush project. Recently, a visit of a group of journalists was arranged "to assess its habitability". Not surprisingly, the visit yielded a general endorsement. After all, the structures and facilities on the "self sufficient" island are surely more impressive than the thatched, rickety shacks that the refugee currently live in.
Last week in Prothom Alo, analyst Kamal Ahmed raised two pertinent questions. Would not the current inmates of the facility, who have been living on the island for months, be the most suitable persons to speak on the issue, and what prevented the journalists from speaking with them? Also relevant is the question of whether this would give a signal to the Burmese, and also the world, that Bangladesh is beginning to accept the Rohingya as fait accompli by building permanent structures for them.
It is regrettable that the project was conceived and executed in haste without engaging important stakeholders who are rendering services for the protection of the refugees. Before carrying out any relocations, the call for a comprehensive technical and protection assessment to evaluate the safety and sustainability of life on Bhashan Char is a reasonable one. In line with its earlier commitment, the government must ensure that relocation will be voluntary and refugees will enjoy access to basic rights, services and livelihood opportunities.
One wonders if the placement of more than 300 refugees in May as the first residents of the island, mostly women and children who were intercepted and rescued on their way to Malaysia, was a prudent one. The persistent refusal of the authorities to grant UN access to these vulnerable and traumatised survivors to assess their protection and humanitarian situation only generates negative publicity. The claims by the inmates of sexual abuse and extortion (while effecting money transfer by relatives) that have been highlighted by international media and rights organisations need to be thoroughly and impartially investigated and acted upon. These, coupled with the insensitive (if not reckless) comments of some state functionaries that the refugees will be forced to relocate, and the suggestion that all imprisoned Rohingyas in Cox's Bazar can be granted bail on condition that they agree to go Bhashan Char, only present it as a penal facility, thereby bolster the perception that life on the Char may not be quite bearable.
There is a need for the emergence of an organically grown leadership at different tiers. A long standing demand of refugees and rights activists has been ensuring the participation of the community in making decisions that affect them. A recently released Amnesty International report "Let us speak for our rights" deftly argues that instituting such an arrangement would not only help in making the right decisions; it will ensure openness, accountability and transparency.
The protracted nature of the Rohingya presence in Bangladesh demands innovative and sensitive policy responses. Jettisoning its earlier approach, Bangladeshi authorities have responded to the felt needs of the refugees and acknowledged the importance of education and skill training. It has lifted the blanket ban on internet coverage. It has acted decisively to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. It is trying its best to bring the sharply deteriorating law and order situation in Teknaf under control.
At a time when Burma is under global scrutiny from international accountability mechanisms, policymakers in Dhaka should ensure that the focus remains on the perpetrators of genocide. They should act prudently and refrain from taking any actions that may amount to the proverbial "shooting yourself in the foot".
C R Abrar is an academic with an interest in migration and rights issues.