An open letter to Bangladeshi youth
In a few short days, I will leave Bangladesh again. The first time I left, I left because I wanted to know more about the world and my place in it. A decade, a Master's degree, and a humanitarian mission later, I know there is still a lot more left to learn.
You might be wondering who I am to write you a letter. In a number of ways, I am no one special. I have not done much that is worthy of note, and have not won any awards you might know of. But I did grow up here and I know how the rain feels. I know the air and I know the dog that sits in the corner of my street. And so, perhaps foolishly, I feel like I can write to you. But I do have an ulterior motive, like all who write must.
For the past 18 months, I have worked for an international agency engaged in the Rohingya refugee response. I have been fortunate enough to learn from a community forced out of their homes, and in their plight, I have seen time and time again the urgency of fighting for our collective future. My note to you is a request to think of those deprived of what you and I can take for granted.
Right now, 4,000 Rohingyas are stuck in the "no man's land" between Bangladesh and Myanmar. While a small percentage compared to the one million who have found safety in Cox's Bazar, these 4,000 humans are victims of the same armed aggression, state brutality and global inaction that has defined generations of the Rohingya experience. Across an increasingly fractured world, conflict remains the primary driver of human displacement, and a reminder that things can break apart anytime, anywhere.
To make matters worse, when humans are forced to flee, they are met with barbed wires and the blunt ends of rifles. The richest states are the worst offenders, with pushbacks and incarceration common across Europe and North America. Those who are lucky to find safety still face an uncertain future. Services, resources and compassion available to refugees vary greatly and, despite grand claims of equality, can often be traced over the colour of one's skin.
Climate change is causing this already flawed system to short-circuit. In northern Bangladesh, the floodwaters showed no signs of receding for a month; in southern Iraq, rivers as old as civilisation itself are drying up. This change, this radical shift, acts as both cause and correlation, precipitating and amplifying the need for people to move. We cannot stop this; we can only prepare for it.
What does this mean for Bangladesh, where one out of every seven people is projected to be displaced over the next few decades? One out of seven people can be someone we know, someone we love, someone we are willing to take on the world for.
I am plagued by a question that has no easy answer: as the waters rise, as cities become richer and towns become poorer, how do we ensure that humans are able to move to provide for themselves and their families? How do we do so sustainably, yet humanely, in a crowded and under-resourced country? How do we urge the privileged to share responsibility for the forgotten?
We are nowhere near where we need to be. Everything that will decide the future is up in the air: in Geneva, they are debating whether climate migrants are refugees; in Sylhet, they already are. These definitions matter because they are tied to responsibility and resources. Equally importantly, it matters who is part of these discussions – where they come from and what languages they speak.
Everyone agrees that responsibilities need to be shared, but no one agrees on how. Those who start wars, and those who contribute disproportionately to climate change, should theoretically shoulder more, but that is often not the case. We are trying to hold these feet to the fire, but to paraphrase a colleague, we need more hands.
Bangladesh, despite the great inequality that plagues it, is aware of the existential threat that faces everything we hold dear. But Bangladesh – and dare I say the world – needs you. You hold, in your anger and your compassion, the ability to bend the arc of our future towards justice. Your voices, in their unfiltered clarity and unbridled possibility, can inform and influence those with power over lives. Regardless of what others may tell you, you are in a position to inform. Everyone can read theory – only a few live it.
And so, when you think your words are not strong enough, make them stronger. When your critique doesn't raise enough brows, be more critical. Tell us, no holds barred, about everything we are doing wrong – about systemic change, about local leadership, about innovation and opportunity.
You don't have to be a humanitarian to do this work. On the contrary, those who do this for a living need reminders from those who want to live. Movements live and die with those who support them with their time and energy, with their rage and joy, with their art, their words, their stories about what is at stake: the rain, the air, the dog in the corner of the street we grew up in.
Imrul Islam is the outgoing advocacy manager for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Bangladesh.