Long before August 2017, there were Rohingya refugees who lived in camps in Cox's Bazar, who had left Myanmar decades ago.
Arman, now in his mid-20s, was born and raised in these camps. His parents were among those who fled Myanmar in the early 1990s, and were recognised as refugees by the Bangladesh government and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). These "registered" Rohingya refugees, numbering around 35,000 continue to live in the camps, nearly 30 years on. Their children tend to be almost entirely socially integrated—speaking Bangla fluently (in addition to their native Rohingya). Bangladesh is the only home they have ever known.
Worldwide, protracted refugee situations show that nearly two-thirds of refugees are displaced for longer than five years and on average, can be displaced for up to 20 years (UNHCR, 2015).
As a child, Arman studied in the school inside Kutupalong refugee camp; non-formal schooling is provided until grade eight in the registered camps. Some parents also faked papers to get their children enrolled in local schools for their continued education.
Arman managed to continue his education up to the HSC level, after getting admitted to a local college. But he was tragically outed as a Rohingya by his classmates and was unable to sit for his two remaining HSC exams in the 2014-2015 academic year. Until then, he had told no one at his school or college where he lived or who he was.
Arman's was an unfortunate case. His classmates who remained unidentified were able to sit for all their examinations and complete their hard-earned schooling in a country where they are denied access to formal education.
Bangladeshi schools and local authorities had largely turned a blind but benevolent eye to this practice. This, however, has changed more recently. In 2019, local authorities and law enforcement tracked and expelled Rohingya students in local schools and colleges.
Such measures came into being following the largest ever influx of Rohingyas into Bangladesh starting in August 2017. The newer refugees have been displaced for more than two years now, with formal attempts to voluntarily repatriate having already failed twice. Deals between Bangladesh and Myanmar have fallen through and the international community's effort to mediate have ended in indecisiveness at the Security Council. Belated attempts at justice by international courts are currently underway.
The refugees demand recognition as "Rohingya", citizenship, return to their own homes and villages, and justice for the atrocities committed, before their return home—reasonable yet unlikely conditions for Myanmar to meet. These new arrivals, who constitute the majority of the refugees, have no legal status—they are labelled "forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals" by the Bangladeshi government.
Till then, they are here to stay like those before them.
Both Bangladesh and Myanmar had earlier banned their curricula being taught in the camps; in the "unregistered" camps, refugee children only have access to primary schooling, up to grade five, in "learning centres" set up by Unicef and its partners.
"This education has no value since it's not formalised," said Arman, echoing refugees, especially parents, in the camps. Parents instead send their children to madrasahs set up in the camps or to private tutors, refugees themselves with some education from home, who quietly teach the children the Myanmar curriculum.
Worldwide, in countries hosting long-term refugees, some provide access to local formal education, targeting long-term integration. Others provide education following the curriculum of the refugees' country of origin, in view of their eventual return home.
On January 28, the Bangladesh government finally went for the latter strategy—announcing that the Myanmar curriculum will now be taught to children and skills training will be provided to those over 14 years of age.
Since his aborted schooling, Arman has been working as field staff and interpreter for various NGOs who hire Rohingya as "volunteers" in the camps, paying them a daily stipend. Outside the camps, many Rohingya work informally—doing manual day labour in the fields or in construction, or working in local homes and restaurants.
What changed in 2017?
Things are different now. Prior to late 2017, Arman and other registered refugees could more or less move about freely, albeit using their refugee ID. "We had to present it at the check-posts and were let through," he said.
After the influx, starting in August, these refugees who so far had not encountered so many police and army personnel in and around their camps, are now used to the sight.
More worrying, however, is the barbed wire currently encircling the camp. In September 2019, the home minister announced that barbed wire fences would be installed around the camps "to maintain law and order in the camps and ensure safety and security."
Since the new arrivals have come, other small freedoms enjoyed by the registered refugees have also vanished. The fear of not being able to go to the market for essentials, which Arman says will inevitably happen as the bazar falls outside the wire fence at Arman's camp. Children who manage to persist in local schools and colleges will be unable to continue their education.
Even before these new restrictions, says Arman, this wasn't a life at all. "My life of 29 years has been spent in a jail—refugee life is like an open jail. We have only ever seen the camps."
"For the last 30 odd years, we have been under the rule of a magistrate—we have not had any significant conflicts with locals and have been living alongside them peacefully," said Arman. "We do not now need to have our hands and feet tied. To be encircled now, means to cripple us."
This encirclement is the latest in a series of restrictive measures enforced in the camps. Recently, the government also cut off access to high-speed internet in the camps. The cellular network in the area is notoriously poor and slow during certain times of the day and at times, cut off entirely—during which period, many mobile phones were confiscated, alleged refugees. The authorities say these measures are necessary for battling crime, drug smuggling, and militancy among the Rohingya.
Repatriation—what do the refugees want?
"We don't want repatriation because those of us who were born or grew up here, cannot place any trust in the Myanmar government. We have seen them repeatedly giving the Bangladeshi government its word and then going back on it. When it can cheat another government, then what can they do to us—the public?"
"At one time, we were forced to return—this could happen again," said Arman.
There is precedent. Forcible return is not new to these refugees—Arman's parents were caught up in the refugees' struggles against the government and UNHCR in the early 1990s and 2000s. His parents spoke of refugees being intimidated; others forced back to Burma on buses; many families were separated.
Jeff Crisp, a scholar at the University of Oxford and Chatham House, has argued against premature repatriation and a trend of unsafe returns in the case of the Rohingya and others in protracted refugee situations. In an article for the Overseas Development Institute's Humanitarian Practice Network, he highlights the history of forced earlier returns both the Bangladesh government and UNHCR were complicit in—following the influxes of 1978 and 1991, bilateral agreements were signed between Bangladesh and Myanmar for the return of the refugees. This included the use of intimidation, military force, and withholding food and other aid—leading to high levels of malnutrition and death rates in the camps—which were attributed to epidemics. UNHCR official estimates say up to 10,000 refugees died in this time.
This is what Arman fears. "Especially when we are closed off, no one will be able to see what's happening. It is little known that there are registered refugees, from 1991 and 1992. We don't see anyone speaking on our behalf."
Arman and his family enjoy official refugee status, but in the camps where almost a million others are in legal limbo, what does this now mean? Earlier, there were talks and plans of their integration here or resettlement elsewhere. These aren't talked about anymore.
"If we are not given citizenship rights, we should at least be given access to education, healthcare, and movement, which we have had for the past 30 years," he said. "We want to be able to start a small business, and be able to stay in touch with family and relatives abroad," continued Arman.
Perhaps all they want is some agency in a life of endless limbo.
Maliha Khan is a subeditor at The Daily Star.