At one high point at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, the mountains of Myanmar appear so close that it looks like you could reach out and touch the trees.
Myanmar is the country that the Rohingya refugees who fled here long to return to. In May 2019, I returned to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh to meet them once more.
More than 740,000 Rohingya refugees fled to the neighbouring Bangladesh due to the violence that broke out in Myanmar’s Rakhine State in August 2017. Including the refugees who had previously fled, Kutupalong now hosts more than 910,000 Rohingya refugees, and is now the largest refugee camp on earth.
I visited Kutupalong in December 2017 at the request of UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr Filippo Grandi, just a few months after the outbreak of violence. Although their pain continues, the stories of Rohingya refugees are being less and less told in countries such as my own. Someone had to continue talking about them. This is how my seventh field visit with UNHCR was decided.
I had met Nurisha’s family at the Transit Centre in 2017. Her two daughters, Moriam and Fatima, had grown so much over the two years. Nurisha’s eyes became watery the moment we met. I could feel her gratefulness at the fact that someone had not forgotten about them and had returned.
Nurisha was separated from her husband for over six months as the family fled violence in August 2017. Fortunately, she was able to reunite with her husband in Kutupalong. Nurisha’s story shows the importance of UNHCR’s registration exercise, which is conducted in family units. Through this process, separated family members can be identified and reunited, which is particularly important for many unaccompanied refugee children.
As a mother, the fact that her two young daughters were unable to get proper education was adding to Nurisha’s concerns.
More than 440,000 refugee children in Kutupalong are of school age, like Moriam and Fatima, but are unable to receive proper education. Basic education is provided at UNHCR’s Learning Centres in Kutupalong, but the lack of an official curriculum and certification means these children will face difficulties in continuing education in Bangladesh, and when they return to Myanmar. This is an important issue on which Myanmar’s future depends.
Despite the horrible violence the family experienced in Myanmar, Nurisha said that she often talks with her husband about the day when they will be able to return to their country.
“If my children could be safe, and if our family could live ordinarily and be respected like other people in Myanmar, we will return today, any day,” she said.
I was relieved to see that many refugees were striving to rebuild their lives in an environment that had visibly improved since 2017, but my heart remained heavy at the thought of their future. No matter how well-structured or safe life at a refugee camp may be, a refugee is only a guest in the country of his or her asylum. When a guest’s visit becomes protracted, the hospitality will inevitably begin to wane. Unfortunately, a permanent solution for the Rohingya refugees appears something to be expected only in the distant future.
One of UNHCR’s most important roles is to make sure that refugees do not simply survive, but live with dignity with the opportunities to learn, develop skills, and prepare for and dream of a future.
Such efforts are also being made in Kutupalong. One of the ways to empower refugees is to let them identify their own needs and support projects, and lead them. In Kutupalong, refugee volunteers are leading various initiatives—raising awareness about gender equality, prenatal and post-birth education, preparation for monsoon and cyclone, fixing roads and elephant response, among others. Such initiatives are particularly helpful for the refugee youth, who could be sitting idle in the camps with nothing to do.
“No one can better identify the needs of refugees than refugees themselves. All the plans should begin from the people in the camps,” according to Marin Din Kajdomcaj, head of UNHCR sub-office in Cox’s Bazar. He believes that these projects lie at the heart of UNHCR’s assistance in Kutupalong.
On the last day of my visit, I met with two families at the transit centre who had arrived in Bangladesh, just one month ago. Although numbers have dropped sharply, some Rohingya refugees continue to flee to Bangladesh to escape oppression, persecution and sometimes to save their lives.
Mahmoud, a father of three children, told me that he stayed in Myanmar despite the continuing difficulties because it was his country. Mahmoud’s ultimate dream is, naturally, to return to his home country Myanmar. He said that Myanmar is a democratic nation and, therefore, he wants to be guaranteed his basic rights.
“I ask for the same treatment as any other person in Myanmar. We are grateful to Bangladesh for receiving us, but cannot stay here forever. My dream is to return to my own country,” he said.
During this visit, I met with the refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, who leads the Bangladeshi government’s policy on refugees. Despite its own financial difficulties, the Bangladesh government has never officially closed its border, and has been generously receiving and protecting refugees for decades. The commissioner told me that it is the people of Bangladesh who are the driving force of such tremendous generosity. The people’s feeling of pride of being a member of a country that stands in solidarity with refugees was binding the local and the refugee communities closely together.
But one million people is a large number and the responsibility should not fall on a single country’s shoulders.
The Rohingya crisis is one that is happening somewhere very close to us in Korea. They have been persecuted for many decades. More than 34,000 refugees in Kutupalong have lived there since the 1990s. Many refugees have been here their whole life, and do not know their homeland or a life outside the refugee camp.
Korea can play an important role in putting an end to this tragedy by showing leadership in setting up discussions to find a political solution for the Rohingya refugees. While the solution is being sought, it is also important that funding and support continue for the refugees and the local community in Bangladesh, so that the refugees can be protected and live with dignity.
Last year’s Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya refugees was 70 percent funded. Underfunding naturally leads to the sacrifice of refugees. Too many children, families and ordinary people are suffering from persecution and discrimination without any fault of their own.
No single country or person of authority can put an end to these sufferings. Only you can do it. We can do this together. What makes us human? The choice is yours.
Jung Woo-sung is an actor and a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador.
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