In 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees fled Myanmar for Bangladesh. Mutasim Billah, Oxfam’s Information and Communication Lead in Bangladesh, interviewed local resident Abu Jahed about his experiences welcoming refugees and the continuing challenges in Bangladesh.
Abu Jahed is from a community in the Teknaf area – a place with paddy fields and river embankments from where you can see beyond to the high green hills of Myanmar.
Two years ago, Bangladeshi villagers prepared themselves for the new arrivals.
A boat arrives in Teknaf, Bangladesh with people fleeing from Northern Rakhaine State of Myanmar.
Safety in Bangladesh
“We could see the smoke of their burning houses from here,” says Abu Jahed.
“They came, crossing the river – can you see how big that river is to cross? Many of them died doing so. Those that made it here had nothing – no food, no water, and barely dressed. I went to the main road to invite them to my house.”
This was not the first time refugees from Myanmar braved the Naf River to arrive here. The Government of Bangladesh currently hosts almost a million refugees about 200,000 of these fled here from earlier conflicts in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Refugees have come to Bangladesh, searching for safety, about a dozen times since Myanmar became a country in 1948.
Poverty and limited social services
Cox’s Bazar is the second-poorest district in Bangladesh, meaning that people were struggling here even before the latest arrivals. There are about 335,000 Bangladeshis, and nearly three times that many refugees. The strain is undeniable.
“Let me tell you something about me,” says Abu. “In 1971, during the Bangladesh Liberation War, I myself was a refugee in Myanmar. I was 10 years old when we woke in the night to find our houses burning, and we made the awful journey to Myanmar to save our lives. People there took us in. We had nothing, but we were safe there.
“To this day, we are very thankful to them and now feel a responsibility to pay them back for this kindness.”
Many host community members have expressed this kind of sentiment. Some were themselves displaced in the 1970s, others felt a bond with fellow Muslims or said that helping the refugees just seemed like the right thing to do.
“Let me tell you a story…” Abu says.
Some boys were playing by a river where some frogs were floating. The boys started throwing stones at the frogs, when a passing village elder asked the boys what they were doing.
‘We are playing,’ they answered.
Listening to the boys’ reply, the frogs called out, ‘Throwing stones at us might be a game for you, but our lives are at risk.’
While many local community members expressed empathy for the refugees, they also see that the sheer scale of the new population is a larger issue.
“The Rohingya people and the people of Cox’s Bazar are like the frogs of the story. The world is playing with us. This situation is a game for them, but for the hosts and the refugees living in these conditions it is a matter of life and death.”
Refugees need legal status
Refugees in Bangladesh do not have legal status, so they can’t work, move freely around the country or have a formal education.
This presents a huge problem, explains Abu, “It’s undeniable that education is a must for everyone. If the government can find a way to support their education without causing more problems for us, everyone could support that. Otherwise, what can we expect of the next generation growing up in conditions where their rights are violated, and they have no proper education? We can’t expect anything good.”
International support is urgent
The Government of Bangladesh is under a huge amount of pressure to provide for the refugee population, while also managing the legitimate frustrations of the local communities hosting them.
It is a delicate line to walk, and Bangladesh needs support from countries around the world to continue to develop Cox’s Bazar. For 2019, the response has only 36% of the funding it needs to help refugees and these communities.
Myanmar also needs to take steps to address the root causes of the conflict. It must give citizenship to Rohingya people while putting an end to movement restrictions and other discriminatory policies.
Listen to the people
Abu Jahed told me, “I would urge our government and other countries to put pressure on Myanmar, so that they stop this and listen to what Rohingya people want to say. They are asking for their citizenship, nothing else. If Myanmar does not listen then the world should come forward to help Bangladesh.
“Remember the story about the boys throwing stones at the frogs? It might be a game for them, but we are risking our lives.”
Oxfam has been working with Rohingya refugees since the beginning of the crisis. We have supported more than 266,000 people in Bangladesh and over 100,000 people in Myanmar.