Together we heal, learn and shine
Today, there are more than 82 million people around the world fleeing war, violence, persecution, and human rights violations. This is the highest number of displaced persons recorded in recent history, equating to some half of the population of Bangladesh. There are more disturbing facts: 2020 also marks the ninth consecutive year of increased forced displacements worldwide.
Myanmar, which forced almost 1 million Rohingya people to flee violence and persecution in 2017, is one of the top five countries contributing to increasing global displacement.
In Cox's Bazar, almost 900,000 Rohingya refugees have been generously sheltered by the government and people of Bangladesh for almost four years. The refugees wish to return home, but until it is safe to do so and they can be guaranteed their basic rights and a pathway to citizenship in Myanmar, they have no choice but to remain protected and assisted to live in safety and with dignity in Bangladesh.
Despite countless stories of personal tragedy, loss and suffering, on this World Refugee Day, we celebrate the resilience and determination of refugees to continue to live with dignity and keep their hopes high to one day be able to return home in Myanmar.
This year, we celebrate this day to help refugees "to heal, to learn and to shine", drawing attention to health, education and sports and arts being so important for their daily life and wellbeing.
The Covid-19 pandemic of the past year has shown us the spirit of Rohingya refugees and their host communities to prevent and protect from the spread of the virus like never before. At the onset of the pandemic, refugee and local Bangladeshi volunteers alike mobilised in huge numbers to protect their communities. Thousands of volunteers, including a network of 1,500 community health workers, worked day and night to spread awareness in the refugee camps and local communities on Covid-19, on how to keep themselves safe, refer cases for testing and support those who needed it. This has saved lives.
To heal from the pandemic, refugees have provided mental health and psychosocial support through the UNHCR's peer-to-peer mental health programme. They have gone door to door within their community to mentor peers on how to support themselves and their families to deal with stress, anxiety and anger. This kind of outreach and support not only empowers youth to teach one another, but also to build their leadership skills, self-confidence, and ability to cope with adversity.
Other refugees have taken it upon themselves to spread information in different ways—using videos and online information campaigns. A self-started refugee youth group known as Omar's Film School has been creating videos in the Rohingya language to raise awareness for refugees to share information about how to avoid the virus. These young people are stepping up in the face of adversity to protect their own communities despite the risks to themselves.
Access to school and learning facilities has been significantly impacted by the pandemic, not only in Bangladesh but globally, especially for 85 percent of refugee children who live in developing countries around the world. For refugees, going to school was already a challenge, but lockdowns have now made learning almost impossible. Still, refugee Learning Assistants continue to spend their days going door to door throughout the congested refugee camps, to provide at least some kind of learning at home to students, and to support their parents. Resuming caregiver-led education in the camps would allow children to continue learning at home until it is safe for learning centres and schools to reopen. In parallel, continuing preparations to roll out the Myanmar Curriculum in the camps to allow for its rapid implementation, once the Covid-19 situation permits to reopen the learning centres, will help to ensure that a generation of Rohingya children is not left behind.
Sports has also proven time and again to be an excellent way for people to heal from trauma. In the Rohingya camps, however, access to open spaces is very limited. Still, many refugees can be seen every evening playing football, volleyball and traditional "Chinlone" from Myanmar. Young refugees here are motivated by the Refugee Olympic team and the remarkable challenges these athletes have overcome to compete at the top levels, while representing all refugees who have been forced to flee.
The recent news of the success of young Noor Kabir, who was born in the refugee camps in Cox's Bazar and has now become a bodybuilding champion in Australia, has encouraged young people to continue to dream big and work hard towards a brighter future. Noor Kabir is also studying to be a nutritionist and intends to share his knowledge with the refugees in the camps he left behind in Bangladesh. There are also many young refugees who have demonstrated resilience as budding artists. Following the devastating fire on March 22 in the camps, which destroyed 40,000 shelters and killed 11 refugees, a large mural of bright artwork painted by Rohingya youth remained intact, telling the story of the hardships they went through to arrive in Bangladesh, and standing boldly among the ashes as a testament to how resilience through art can shine through even the most difficult of circumstances.
To add to the Covid-19 pandemic, Bangladeshis and Rohingya refugees alike face the annual threat of monsoon rains and cyclones. Again, it is the refugee and Bangladeshi volunteer "first responders" who are saving lives, raising awareness and protecting their communities. Braving bad weather, volunteers are out in force during heavy downpours and flooding, moving others to safety and ensuring that everyone has access to food and basic needs.
These are just a few stories of the incredible resilience that Rohingya—and other refugees around the world—continue to show in spite of the odds stacked against them. On the World Refugee Day, we celebrate refugees' resilience and support them in their hopes for a brighter future. On this day, we also acknowledge the dedicated humanitarians alongside whom I serve every day, colleagues from both Bangladesh and other parts of the world who work tirelessly and selflessly to create a better life for refugees, often far from their own loved ones.
Four years into the Rohingya crisis, we cannot lose focus on the need to find solutions for the Rohingya refugees by creating peace, stability and justice for them in Myanmar, with their rights fully restored and their living conditions improved. We must continue to stand with the Rohingya and with all refugees in the world, to support them, and to ensure that their hope and aspirations for the future are kept alive and allow them to heal, learn and shine.
Johannes van der Klaauw is the UNHCR
Representative in Bangladesh.