Jehangir is a majhi, or a camp leader, at the sprawling and congested Rohingya refugee camp in Kutupalong in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazaar. In April, as Myanmar’s Social Welfare Minister Win Myat Aye visited the camp, the first such visit by a top Myanmarese official, Jehangir was ready with his list of demands.

The Rohingyas, a predominantly Muslim community, have been fleeing Myanmar’s Rakhine state in droves to escape persecution by the Buddhist government and a military crackdown that started in October 2016. More than a million of them have crossed over into Bangladesh since last year.

Jehangir was a teacher in Myanmar’s Maungdaw village, which was attacked by the Army. “They fired at us and burnt many houses,” he said. “My cousin was killed in that attack.” Jehangir looks better now than he did when he arrived in Bangladesh. Life in the camp has done him good. Will he ever return to his village? “Not till we get citizenship papers and guarantees for our safety,” he said. This was the message he and many other majhis conveyed to Win Myat Aye, who chose to address them as Bengalis rather than as people from his own country.

Not far from the Kutupalong camp, at the Ukhia sub-district centre, protesting Rohingyas shouted, “They murdered, raped and tortured us and they drove us out of the country.”

Despite the minister’s visit and the signing of an agreement in November between Myanmar and Bangladesh on the repatriation of all refugees to their villages, nothing much has happened on the ground. At last count, only one refugee had gone back. The Rohingyas have resisted leaving the camp, despite the congestion, lack of hygiene and other problems they live with.

Myanmar Social Welfare Minister Win Myat Aye at Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh's Ukhia district on April 11, 2018. (Credit: AFP)
Myanmar Social Welfare Minister Win Myat Aye at Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh's Ukhia district on April 11, 2018. (Credit: AFP)

Old fault lines

Under international pressure, the Myanmarese government of Aung San Suu Kyi has spoken about taking back the refugees and providing them with accommodation, but neither history nor the present will allow such a happy solution.

The Muslim population living in the hilly tracts of the Arakan Mountains near Rakhine has for long been called “Indian Muslims” or “Pakistani Muslims” by Buddhist residents. When Warren Hastings was the governor of Bengal, a British officer, Captain Hiram Cox, was asked to deal with the violence that was being perpetrated against Arakan Muslims in an area now named after him – Cox’s Bazaar. That was in the year 1799. Since then, the violence has never really stopped, nor has the wave of refugees descending on these parts.

After democracy returned to Myanmar and Suu Kyi came to power in 2015, there were expectations that the lives of Rohingyas would improve. These hopes were belied. For, the return of democracy meant a revival of the old social fault lines that had contributed to the crafting of a militant majoritarian narrative that excluded and disenfranchised the Rohingyas. State Counsellor Suu Kyi has been silent on recognising the identity of the Rohingyas within the Myanmarese nation-state. Rohingyas, therefore, continue to be condemned as a stateless people living on the compassion of the country that gives them refuge.

Rohingyas have resisted leaving the camp in Cox's Bazaar despite the congestion, lack of hygiene and other problems. (Credit: Fred Dufour / AFP)
Rohingyas have resisted leaving the camp in Cox's Bazaar despite the congestion, lack of hygiene and other problems. (Credit: Fred Dufour / AFP)

An Alcatraz for Rohingyas?

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina – who earned international praise for opening her borders and her heart to the refugees when other neighbouring countries chased them out or viewed them with suspicion – is now looking to ensure that their presence does not cost her politically in general elections due later this year. Experts are of the opinion that the Bangladesh economy, which has averaged a growth rate of around 7% in the last few years, could come under a strain because of the refugees. People on the street are heard complaining, “These Rohingyas have so many children. It is time they went back.”

In Cox’s Bazaar, the Army guards the Rohingya camp. The camp’s inmates are not allowed to mix with the local people – though the refugees who arrived in the country years ago have since made their homes in other parts of the town. Humanitarian agencies are not allowed to teach them the local language, Bengali, lest it facilitate their unwelcome immersion in Bangladeshi society.

Sheikh Hasina’s government has proposed shifting some of the refugees to a floating island that sprung up in the Bay of Bengal some time after 2007. This island – reportedly inhabited by society’s malcontent, including pirates and human smugglers – is witnessing some serious construction by Chinese and Bangladeshi workers. Come June, the Bangladeshi government hopes to ship the Rohingyas to this island from where there is no escape to anywhere but Myanmar – if the government in Naypyidaw decides to take them back, that is.

“It is like the Alcatraz [an island prison in the United States] or India’s Andaman penitentiary,” said a worker with an international humanitarian agency. “Once a person is sent there, then there is no getting out.”

These agencies, including the United Nations Refugee Agency or UNHCR, have opposed the Bangladesh government’s move and termed it similar to refoulement or the forcible return of refugees to their country against their wishes.

Defending the plan, the Bangladesh government has said it is up to it to decide where the refugees are settled, and also that the camps, located on soft hills, may not survive landslides in the coming monsoon.

This is the tragedy of these nowhere people – no one listens to them or tries to understand where they would like to eventually settle. Wherever they have been provided shelter, they continue to live half-lives.

A version of this article appeared in Independent Group of papers, South Africa.

This article first appeared on Hardnews.