On June 20, 2002, thousands of Rohingya refugees held peaceful rallies in Bangladesh, demanding repatriation to Myanmar with safety, dignity and security. The demonstrations were staged under the banner “Let’s go home.” Refugees among 23 crowded camps in Bangladesh’s southeastern district of Cox’s Bazar were marching through the camps, chanting slogans and holding placards. They handed out leaflets with a 19-point demand where safe repatriation to Myanmar and the cancellation of its controversial 1982 citizenship amendment law are the most important among them.

By Khalid Saifullah

Currently, around 1.1 million Rohingya refugees living in 34 different camps in Cox’s Bazar district, have fled from Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, also known as Arakan. The latest wave of 7 lakh (hundred thousand) Rohingya came to Bangladesh in 2017 as they were subjected to ethnic cleansing and atrocities, including rape, murder, and arson attacks. Bangladesh accommodates them in various camps across the southeast coastal and hilly region where these Rohingya refugees have been living for at least five years with minimal facilities, lack of nutrition and sanitation, no work, and little access to education. People live in a small house with all of their family members. Many of them live in flimsy bamboo and tarpaulin shelters. The condition is worsening day by day as the population growth rate is intensely high inside the camps.

The refugees living in the camps are facing a lot of uncertainties. Among them, food insecurity is one of the most frequent areas of concern for Rohingya refugees. Recent research by Burma Human Rights Network says at least 93% of the refugees receive only a minimal food ration, those are not sufficient for an entire family. They only get life-sustaining food to eat.

Meanwhile, little access to mobility and work is leading them to commit illegal activities. While works and educational opportunities remain scarce, they are unable to make money to feed their family and buy non-food items. This anxiety and depression led them to many forms of violence like theft, trafficking, arson, and criminal gang activity. DW article titled: Bangladesh: Gang violence in Rohingya refugee camps prompts fear. Since August 2017, conflicts within the camps have taken the lives of at least 89 Rohingya. Internal gang rivalry is a growing concern for residents, authorities, and host communities. It’s triggering conflicts between different Rohingya groups and domestic violence. Last year’s Killing of Mohibullah, a Rohingya leader is a recent instance of violence.

Many of them forcing their lives at risk and trying to migrate to different countries in search of work. Several Rohingyas get caught by law enforcement agencies when they left the camps to make sea journeys to Malaysia or Indonesia. Women, children, and adolescents are also taking this risk with the influence of human traffickers to live a better life.

The Rohingya children are growing up in rigid conditions and with a lack of nutrition. They don’t know where they belong and what their real identity. While international aid agencies provide basic services, children still face disease outbreaks, malnutrition, inadequate educational opportunities and the risks related to neglect, exploitation and violence including gender-based violence risks, child marriage and child labor. Deprived children and adolescents are at real risk of becoming a “lost generation”, ready prey to those who would exploit them for political or other ends.

To alleviate the sufferings of the Rohingya refugees, a well-coordinated humanitarian response is direly required. Unfortunately, International humanitarian assistance for Rohingyas had started declining after the global economic strain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. By 2020 the fund for humanitarian assistance came down to 65 percent which was between 72 and 75 percent in the first three years. The Russia-Ukraine war intensified the crisis. Constant Population growth in the camps and the inflation caused by the global food crises made it impossible for Bangladesh to afford this large expenditure. Considering the international community’s aid cut and Bangladesh’s economic vulnerability, the upcoming days would be more miserable for Rohingya refugees.

However, the Bangladesh government took Two repatriation attempts in November 2018 and August 2019,  but all of those failed as the conditions in Rakhine State were not conducive and there was no guarantee of citizenship once they returned home. On June 14, Bangladesh and Myanmar held the fifth meeting of the Joint Working Group (JWG) virtually regarding the repatriation of the displaced Rohingyas from Bangladesh to their homeland in Arakan. The meeting disappointed Bangladesh as they handed over a list of 830,000 individuals containing biometric data but the Myanmar authority has only verified 58,000. It’s clear that their intention is only lingering in the process. Govt. urged support of the international community to resolve the Rohingya issue, but nothing has worked. In the last five years, the international community has failed to play an effective role. Though the UN and many western countries showed their positive intention to force Myanmar to repatriate Rohingyas, neighboring countries like India, China and Japan showed little interest. Myanmar’s ally with China and Russia allowed them not to take any strong position to facilitate Rohingya Repatriation. The situation has been stagnant since the Military Junta govt. took over the power on February 1 last year, according to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh.

As domestic and international efforts disappointed them, Rohingya refugees realized that there is no hope left and they have stuck in endless misery. So, they choose their own way of demonstration. The ‘Go Home’ campaign should act as a “wake-up call” for the international community, which should put pressure on Myanmar to ensure the repatriation of its citizens. The banners, leaflets, and placards are written in English, Myanmares, and Rohingya. It reflects that they are trying to draw the attention of the audiences of Myanmar, the international community, and the Rohingyas.

The ‘Go Home’ campaign has much potential from both refugee and domestic perspectives. As the Rohingya leaders expressed their desire to go back to their homeland, the campaign would help growing consciousness among the refugees that their arrangement in Bangladesh is a temporary solution. A 2019 UNHCR survey found that almost all the 214 families interviewed did not want to return until their key demands are met. However, in 2022 they could realize that if they don’t take any steps themselves, these sufferings would be long-lasting in the congested camps. Bangladesh should not discourage them rather they should accelerate the negotiation with Myanmar authority and international community.  The international community should respond immediately to their appeal and intensify their steps to speed up the safe Rohingya repatriation.

Khalid Saifullah is an independent Researcher on Society and Cultural Studies. He has completed her BSS in Anthropology from the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. He also holds an MSS from the University of Dhaka with a specialization in Society, culture and migration.