In vast Kutupalong-Balukhali camp many of the Rohingya refugees are very busy. Some can be seen re-building a road to prevent it subsiding and others carving out stairways along hillsides or wedging in bags filled with sand or earth to make steps. Obviously, because it’s the rainy season, they often don’t last very long and when they collapse, more bags or bricks have to be found to consolidate the earth.
The Rohingya refugees try to improve their living environment—well, as much as they’re allowed to. They’re not permitted to have real, permanent houses because, as far as the authorities are concerned, they’re not staying. The refugees put up shelters made of bamboo and plastic sheeting, which provide scant protection against the monsoon rains. Some of the shelters have cement floors, but most stand on the bare earth. It’s all very rudimentary, but then, they have to make temporary permanent.
The shelters also have very little space. Families would love to have a little more privacy but it’s simply not possible. With all the shelters crammed in one against the other, everything can be overheard through their woven bamboo walls. And it’s hard for the women to find a place where they can wash without anyone seeing them.
During monsoon season lots of people put buckets under roofs to collect rainwater. This makes life easier. But in some areas of the camp it’s difficult to get to clean water wells. They’re at the bottom of hills and the shelters are on the side or the top and the ground is slippery when it rains. Imagine what climbing the paths is like for pregnant women and mothers who have families to look after. The rain also makes it hard to get around, so people stay put in their shelters and don’t get out to see their relatives.
But rain or shine, they’re not allowed to leave the camps. As for returning home to Myanmar—that’s another story altogether. It’s nine to ten months, and now more than a year, since the outbreak of violence in August 2017 that led the Rohingyas to flee their country and seek refuge in Bangladesh.
When they first arrived, it was an emergency situation. They were busy setting up shelters and settling in, but now they have to cope with having nothing to do. Some of them realise they’re not going to be returning home any time soon, which is hard to swallow. However, most people have told me they want to go back to Myanmar. In fact, when they apply to work as volunteers in the camp, they give the place they come from in Myanmar as their permanent address. That says a lot.
They long to go back to their country and repatriation is their only hope—but not at any price. A volunteer I work with told me again the other day that back in Myanmar they want to be considered fully-fledged citizens, have their rights recognised and their safety guaranteed. There was no question of him applying to become a Myanmar national as imposed by the Burmese authorities. They consider it unacceptable to have to submit applications as if they were foreigners.
The youngest generations of Rohingyas have no identity documents. A few people have proudly shown me copies of their grandparents’ ID cards to prove that these documents did exist once and that Rohingyas had their place in society.
In the meantime, they’re homesick. They miss their life back home and compare what they have here with what they had in Myanmar—the food, prices of goods, and so on. When they talk about their lives there, they often stop mid-sentence, gaze into the middle-distance, seized with emotion. During Eid that celebrates the end of Ramadan, people looked sad. They were miserable at not being able to observe Eid at home and not having the means to celebrate it as it should be.
I wouldn’t say they’re despondent or distraught, but they are resigned to having to fight for equal rights. They just keep going. Their lives are extremely tough, they have suffered discrimination and violence, and now they’re in a foreign country. They’re waiting.
But there are good moments too. Football comes to mind. They love it. In July, people who were able to afford 20 takas (about 20 euro cents) watched the World Cup matches in teashops with TVs. Volunteers on the surveillance team would send me messages in the middle of the night telling me that France had scored, almost as it happened… because I’m French. Some even ordered French football shirts. They were way better supporters than me!
Header picture: Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp overview. Bangladesh, June 2018. © Patrick Rohr