All of Rohingiyas refugees were emphatic: They wanted to return, but in safety and dignity

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An excerpt from the seminar report “The Rohingya Refugee Crisis:  Causes and Consequences”, organized by the South Asia Forum for Human Rights in collaboration with Development and Justice Initiative, India International Centre and Euro-Burma office, held in New Delhi on May 11, 2018:

Voices of Rohingyas brought to the centre of the discussions, the perspectives and lived experiences of the Rohingya in Bangladesh and India, and as the chair Rita Manchanda emphasised, it challenged the dominant policy framing of others — UNHCR, IOM — speaking for the refugees. Arguing that ‘participation itself was protection’, she argued against the infantalisation of the refugee, especially refugee women, and emphasised the importance of refugees (women and men) being involved in determining the decisions that directly affect their lives. She regretted camp policies as evident in Cox’s Bazaar that desisted from involving the refugees in building basis infrastructure and thus reinforcing sense of disempowerment and agency.

Razia Sultana assertively identifies herself as a Rohingya, and is a feminist, a lawyer, human rights defender. When the Burmese military junta nationalized businesses, her father, a prosperous businessman, shifted his business and his family to Chittagong Bangladesh. Razia is a Bangladesh citizenship but is deeply involved in campaigning for Rohingya rights, especially Rohingya women’s rights. She is the author of the devastating pamphlet, (Kaladan Press Network, 2017, “Rape by Command”), which documents the widespread and systematic rape by the army of more than 300 women/girls as part of the military offense of ethnic cleansing and planned mass expulsion.

She asserted, “We are not asking for citizenship. We are reclaiming our rights”. She ridiculed the ‘official’ story of the coordinated ‘terrorist’ attack of hundreds by armed men of the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army on police-military posts in the Arakan. Where would they have trained in the hills, when in every corner of the highly militarized territory there are police posts and patrols?  People are not able to move from one house to another, forget about a coordinated attack with bombs or pre-planned attacks. Razia expressed sadness and anger at her fallen icon, Suu Kyi.

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On working in the camps, Razia spoke of the accommodative welcome of the local people but recognized the growing strain resulting from competition for resources and livelihood. The refugees are obliged to work for one fourth of the minimum wage rate. And there is resentment that the refugees get free rations, health care etc.  Ironically they are considered ‘rich’ because of access to these resources. Camps have girls vulnerable to ‘marriages that are nothing more than pieces of paper’.

Camps have become a magnet for traffickers and ‘yava industry’ drug dealers, who prey upon the ignorance and innocence of the refugees. For as little as a ‘mobile’, they are promised of an escape to India; they are sucked in. “Rohingya girls have become ‘cheap’. I used to be so proud of saying, I was Rohingya…” Rohingya girls were being brainwashed into “normalizing” prostitution in the refugee camps of Bangladesh. She was critical of women activists focusing on humanitarian and welfare needs and ignoring the need for awareness on gender equality and empowerment.

In India, the 40,000 plus Rohingya refugees have been facing increasing challenges after the government’s policy directive (stayed by Supreme Court) on deportation. Allegations of involvement with terrorist groups and rumors spread by media reports have made things more difficult in their already difficult daily life, in which they struggle for shelter, healthcare, schooling for children, livelihood, and face the hazard of being a non-citizen.

Four Rohingya asylum seekers came from Jammu, Haryana and Delhi. Many made their way from Bangladesh to India hearing that there was possibility of schooling, of finding some job.

Sultan (not his name) said, “After making our way to Delhi we applied for asylum seeker status to UNHCR. We got a card categorizing as a refugee. No other assistance. For 41 days we protested in front of UNHCR office. The police dispersed us and forced us to stay at a railway station for two days. Eventually we were ‘settled’ on government land property, ‘no construction area’, a makeshift camp constructed out of scraps of recycled wood and plastic, which we bought ourselves. That is home.”

Seema (not her name) spoke of the difficulties girls face. Female sanitation and hygiene is a daily struggle. Till 6 months ago there were no toilets installed. UNHCR is providing sanitary napkins for 6 months a year. But in a camp there is nowhere the women can dispose them of.

Sultan (name changed) spoke of how he felt when he saw his father, once a senior government official, carrying loads at a construction site, or he, an educated young man, loading sacks, tears streaking his face. A benefactor rescued him. He had skills, he was lucky. Refugee children have the right to go to school, but there are just not enough entitlements of books, uniforms or the most important — midday meal provisions. “We are called dirty, are made to sit apart.”  A small number of NGOs have been engaged in supporting the residents in camps. Forty seven children have received scholarships for free education in primary school. UNICEF also provides facilities for education, but schools are too far for the children to reach, and public transport is unaffordable.

Sakina (not her name), one of a family of three women/girls, with middle school education, demonstrates the resilience of her family to learn and build a new life for themselves. In Jammu, the refugees have monopolised the digging works required by the city and the railways, and women are busy shelling walnuts, but at Rs 100 — it is bare subsistence. Even that could be jeopardized by the xenophobic jingoism stoked by allegations of the ‘Muslim’ Rohingya being a security threat.

So far there has been no tension in their day-to-day interaction with the immediate local community, she said.  All of the refugees were emphatic, they wanted to return, but in safety and dignity.

Read full report of the seminar proceedings HERE

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