Bangladesh

Attempting to Understand the Rohingya Crisis

by Ogonna Kanu

When you hear a group of persons repeatedly described as the most persecuted minorities in the world, it piques your curiosity and makes you wonder why. My research on the Rohingya prompted me to write about them because I was moved by their predicament. This article attempts to throw more light on the current state of the Rohingyas and the origins of their plight.

The Rohingya are a minority muslim ethnic group predominantly found in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. Very few of them are practicing Buddhists. They generally speak the Rohingya dialect but may also speak English, Bangla, Burmese and Chittagonian. They traditionally dress in the Indo-Burmese way of dressing; and music and song play an important part in their culture.

The genesis of the Rohingya crisis dates back to the 1940s when Myanmar (formerly Burma) got its independence from the British who held sway from 1824 till then. Motivated by the policies of the British, many Rohingya migrated to Myanmar in search of greener pastures. Often recruited in the rice fields, their population grew. The Muslim population was reported to have tripled in the 1870s because of such migrant activities. The British promised the Rohingya their own separate land if they supported them. It was a promise they didn’t intend to keep. While the Rohingya sided with the British during World War II, the Myanmar nationalists were on the Japanese side. At the end of the war, their reward was prestigious government positions, but no land.

With the fall of colonialism in 1948, the Rohingya continued to demand for an autonomous state but their association with the British had bred resentment towards them. The Nationalist government and the mainly Buddhist population regarded them as foreigners who had enjoyed the perks of colonial rule and would hear nothing of such demands. In 1950, the army quashed a Rohingya revolt demanding for an autonomous state. Since then, a series of attacks have forced them to flee to Bangladesh, Malaysia, India, Thailand and Indonesia. A greater percentage of the Rohingya are refugees in Bangladesh. The 700,000 who recently fled in 2017 joined others who had earlier fled. They found homes in the Kuputalong Camp (in Cox’s Bazar district)in Bangladesh. With their ‘relocation’, Kuputalong became the biggest refugee camp in the world, housing over 880,000 Rohingya refugees. 

In 1982, the Citizenship Act of Myanmar was enacted. The Act considers as citizens only those whose ancestors belonged to a national group or race present in Myanmar before the British rule of the 1820s. However, a census conducted by the British prior to 1820 when they occupied the Rakhine territory confirms the presence of an indigeneous ethnic group ‘Rooinga’. Some claims assert that the Rohingyas had lived in the Rakhine state of Myanmar as far back as the 12th century. Myanmar has not considered any of these claims and has consistently denied the Rohingyas citizenship. They are instead viewed as illegal immigrants or at best ‘resident foreigners’. Bangladesh, where a lot of the Rohingyas have had to flee to, do not consider them as citizens either. As such, the Rohingyas are stateless and are deprived of the protection of any government. Rohingya children born outside Myanmar (Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia etc) are not considered citizens of these countries. For those that choose to stay behind in Myanmar, they suffer a deprivation of benefits and are subject to restrictions. They do not enjoy quality healthcare, education or employment. In a bid to reduce their population, there are government restrictions on the number of children they should have. They are allowed to have only 2 children. They are required to seek permission to marry. This process involves presenting the photo of the bride without a headscarf and a clean-shaven faced groom. Both practices do not agree with Muslim customs. They also need permission to move or travel out.

While the news of fleeing Rohingya refugees may have caught world attention briefly in 2017, it was the television scenes of the March 2021 fires destroying countless refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar that jolted the world’s conscience back to the Rohingya crisis. Before then, Cox’s Bazar was largely known to only the humanitarian community.  They had for years been grappling with the weight of this catastrophe begging for urgent attention. There are claims that the refugees had started making their way to Bangladesh as far back as the 1940s. Some documented reports show that they had started to arrive in Bangladesh for succor in 1977 when Myanmar launched ‘Operation Dragon King’ which stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship status and led to mass arrests and persecution of the group. There is also pictorial evidence showing refugees settling in Dumdumia Camp in Cox’s Bazar in 1992. In 2017, reprisal attacks from the Myanmar army and indignant Buddhist indigenes of the Rakhine state forced an estimated 700,000 Rohingya refugees to seek refuge in the town. Earlier on, a group of Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts  with knives and home-made bombs, killing 12 members of the security forces in the process. The Myanmar army and the locals unleashed vengeance on Rohingya homes and property. Rape, sexual slavery, torture, kidnappings and killing of civilians were reported. Unverified reports claim that over 1,000 Rohingyas lost their lives in the 2017 fracas. Others who barely managed to survive joined in the mass exodus to Cox’s Bazar.

In 2018, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a repatriation agreement. Rohingya refugees were not eager to return to Myanmar. They were skeptical of receiving a warm welcome from people they once regarded as neighbors. Rohingya leaders were not convinced of the sincerity of the process; and demanded for safety upon their return to the Rakhine state and the reinstatement of citizenship be addressed, before any consideration would be given to repatriation. On the other hand, the  unfounded fear held by Myanmar that the Rohingyas could turn rebellious and solicit support from neighboring Islamic countries to overrun the Buddhist country was still rife. With the Myanmar government refusing to let down its guard, there was no surprise that the repatriation agreement had very little, if at all any, success. The January 2021 coup in Myanmar slowed down the resuscitation of repatriation talks. Both governments have only begun talking again in February this year. 

Presently, fires are not the only obstacles the Rohingyas who have managed to flee Myanmar are faced with. Bangladesh struggles with inadequate resources to cater to the needs of the refugees. The camps are overpopulated and poor sanitary conditions abound. The risk of an outbreak of disease is always high and poor medical facilities exacerbate the danger. Available water supply is often contaminated and encourages the spread of water-borne diseases. Floods also contribute to the rendering of refugees homeless again.  Most of the population is illiterate. Children do not have access to basic education as teachers are barred from using both the Bangladeshi and Myanmar curricula; and children are not allowed to enroll in schools outside the camp. Camp occupants are barred from working outside the camp. In 2019, the Bangladeshi government sped up the construction of shelters on the remote island of Basan Char. Since then, approximately 20,000 Rohingya refugees have been moved without their consent to the Island where they are not allowed to leave and are restricted from communicating with the UN and other organizations. Cases of refugees rescued at sea and being shipped off to the Island instead of being re-united with their families in Cox’s Bazar have been on the increase. The outcry and concerns about the safety of the Island and accessibility from humanitarians have gone unheeded by the government. Amidst criticism of Bangladesh’s handling of the crisis, it is only honest and fair to admit that there was a time when Bangladesh was the only country that accepted the refugees when others had turned their backs on them.

Repatriation seems to be a step in the right direction. However, If underlying issues are sorted out and the Rohingyas finally agree to come home, there may not be much left to come home to. Villages have reportedly been razed down and cleared to accommodate the construction of police barracks, buildings and refugee camps. Clearly, they will not be returning to the security of having homes and lands to call their own. The 2021 military takeover of the Myanmar government puts the Rohingya in a precarious situation. The army has always been involved in the state-endorsed persecution of the group. With the military at the helm of affairs, the group has legitimate reasons to fear that repatriation agreements may be disregarded in favor of military promulgations.  Prejudices and biases do not suddenly die away because of government pronouncements.  Assuming that the Myanmar government magnanimously enacts a law to protect the rights of the Rohingyas, there has to be effective measures in place to ensure that citizens obey the law. Dialogue between the Rohingyas, their Buddhist neighbors and the Myanmar government may help to allay some fears and build some trust amongst all parties.  Will the government consider treading cautiously and tackling bravely the concerns of the Rohingyas in order to win their trust?

Clearly, options for the Rohingyas today are limited.  They can either choose to embrace the uncertainty and hardship of refugee life or stay at ‘home’ in their comfort zone and remain oppressed. I sincerely wish that the story will not be the same in a year or two from now.

Pass the Plate

Ramadan 2020

Every year Muslims around the world observe the holy month of Ramadan by fasting from sunrise to sunset. Unfortunately for hundreds of thousands of families, they will not get the chance to spend this spiritual time in a warm home with nutritious food to break their fast.

The number of people fleeing war, persecution and conflict exceeded 70 million globally last year – the highest number in the UN refugee agency’s almost 70 years of operations. – UN

Refugees and displaced people are the most vulnerable people on the planet, suffering daily without sufficient housing, access to medicine, doctors, food, or clean water. As the crisis worsens, more and more people are depending on humanitarian agencies like UMR to fill the gaps.

Each year during Ramadan, UMR delivers food packages filled with nutritious items such as beans, rice, flour, oil, canned goods, and more to reach people that have absolutely nothing. We have spoken with families begging for help, telling our field staff that without these resources, they will die.

Me and my children are fasting. What will we eat to break our fast? My children are begging me for food and water!

This Ramadan, these families desperately need your help. Please #PassThePlate to a child in need!

Where We Are Working

Lebanon Kenya
Jordan Somalia
Yemen Sudan
Palestine Pakistan
Bangladesh USA

What We Are Providing

Food Baskets

UMR delivers food packages containing items such as rice, flour, sugar, oil, beans, lentils, tomato paste, pasta, bread, and canned goods.

Water & Sanitation

In addition, we will be building water wells in Pakistan, Somalia and Kenya to ensure that some of the poorest communities are able to find clean drinking water, and prevent the spread of diseases.

Orphan Protection

Children are some of the most vulnerable among these already struggling communities. That is why UMR prioritizes the safety and well-being of children and orphans by providing them with healthcare, education, nutrition and a chance at a future.

Iftars

Each year UMR hosts iftar dinners throughout the month of Ramadan. Last year we were able to serve thousands of people in Yemen and Gaza with warm, nutritious meals.

Click Donate Now to See the different programs you can Donate to:

Cataract Missions: Vision 2020

UMR successfully conducted over 1,000 cataract surgeries. Help us reach 5,000 new patients by the end of 2020

Key Facts & Figures:

  • Cataract accounts for 30%-50% of blindness in most African and Asian countries.
  • Every dollar spent towards eliminating blindness and correcting vision in developing countries returns a four-fold on investment in economic terms. This places eliminating avoidable blindness among the most effective interventions available.
  • Cataract surgeries are some of the most impactful on a person’s quality of life and require no follow up visits to a doctor.

Overview:

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) cataract is the leading cause of blindness and visual impairment worldwide, accounting for nearly 20 million cases with nearly 5 million new cases each year. The majority of people with cataracts are found in the developing world due to a lack of access to adequate healthcare facilities or, more often, a lack of ability to afford this low-cost surgery. Most treated cases need as little as 15 minutes, and even though cataract operations have virtually no recovery time, the number of people with preventable blindness continues to grow.

UMR is putting extraordinary effort to reverse this alarming trend through its Vision 2020 campaign

Since 2016, UMR has been sending medical missions to places like Kenya, Jordan, and Bangladesh to perform cataract surgeries on patients in need. UMR has helped to restore the gift of sight to curable blind cases by providing quality medical care services to some of the most underprivileged including the elderly, disabled, refugees and vulnerable people in the community, many of whom live without any support from their relatives and governments. Under this initiative, in coordination with partner NGOs and Ministries of Health, over 1,000 cataract surgeries have been successfully performed free of cost to date thanks to our generous donors. Our surgeries have been 100% successful with no recurring complications, and cost as little as $100 per eye.

I want to thank all of you for donating to this campaign as I have been blind for 6 years. My right eye was damaged by a rock when I was digging a well and now my only eye that was working has been slowly losing sight from cataracts… Soloman (70 years old)

Project Objective:

To restore eyesight to 5,000 people in Jordan and Kenya with cataract by the end of 2020. In addition to cataract surgery, UMR will provide eye exams, glasses and other rehabilitation needed for refugees and others who cannot afford the cost of these medical care services and procedures.

Our Impact:

Treatment of preventable blindness, like cataract and low vision, is one of the most effective ways to lift people out of poverty, especially for vulnerable communities like refugees living in makeshift environments. They regain their independence and confidence to approach economic opportunities and education. UMR and partners have restored eyesight to people who thought they would never be able to see again. We need to continue this work. There are thousands of people out there in great need of hope, and a chance to see again.

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