Myanmar's Rohingya refugees commemorate two years of exile
30 Aug 2019
Rohingya Refugee Camp, Bangladesh

To the casual observer, Tammana Bibi could be any child celebrating a first birthday. She's surrounded by loving friends and family and giggling happily with a toy in hand.

But she isn't like any other child.

Tammana is a Rohingya Muslim from Myanmar and she was born in the world's largest refugee camp where almost a million people are packed into shelters barely one arm's length apart.

 

Many children might celebrate their first birthday in the park, but Tammana and her friends play in front of their shelter made from bamboo and tarpaulin.

Instead of a large birthday cake, Tammana receives a small packet of biscuits.

Instead of a private occasion with family and friends, her gathering is visible to the gaze of hundreds of people who are passing through her family's small section of the camp each hour.

A second anniversary

As Tammana celebrates a year of life in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar camp, her mother Sahara Khatoun, 28, is also marking a milestone: two years since she fled with her husband from their home in Myanmar, walking for days and days to escape attacks by Burmese forces and reach safety.

Life as they knew it was over.

Rohingya families like Tammana's experienced decades of persecution in Myanmar before a violent crackdown in 2017 forced them to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.

When the Rohingya reached Cox's Bazar, the most impoverished district of Bangladesh, many in the local community opened their arms and doors, sharing what they had with the waves of refugees flooding in.

Most Bangladeshi locals farm small plots of land or work as fishermen.

They top up their incomes with day labouring. Despite having so little, they shared a lot as the waves of refugees kept arriving.

 

I have spoken to many of the people who were the first to provide assistance and I have found one common theme: everyone emphasised how they could not turn their backs on people who were crossing the border in a state of desperation. They gave what they could. It's always said with an air of nonchalance, as if people are thinking "well what else would I have done? Ignore them?".

This week two years ago marks the beginning of the Rohingya crossing the Bangladeshi border and the stories of what they'd witnessed began filtering out.

By the end of that year more than 700,000 people had fled across the border.

Two years later, much has changed. But much remains the same.

The situation has somewhat stabilised. Access to food and basic services is now relatively reliable.

Threat from extreme weather

Camp conditions are improving as ongoing engineering work mitigates the near constant threat of disaster in the camps with one monsoon and two cyclone seasons each year.

 

Aid organisations are well-prepared for these climate events with food stocks stored around the camp for minor or major emergencies.

Work to reduce the impact of bad weather, like paving roads, creating better drainage systems, and stabilising potentially dangerous slopes, has been constant and continues.

Yet Rohingya refugees remain vulnerable.

While summer is the season many across the world look forward to, in Cox's Bazar heavy monsoon rains bring dread.

In early July a week of rain left thousands displaced due to flooding and landslides.

Some stayed with family and friends while their shelters were repaired, others took refuge in camp learning centres or other temporary accommodation. Those whose homes are damaged beyond repair will be assigned a new shelter.

More than 52,000 people have been affected by extreme weather since the start of the monsoon. The World Food Program assisted more than 12,000 refugees in July alone by delivering extra food.

 

It isn't only fear of climate related events that looms large, though.

For the vast majority of refugees everyday life totally dependent on aid organisations.

Without ongoing international support the situation would become increasingly desperate.

While many had homes and farms in Myanmar, now the Rohingya live in tiny shelters with limited privacy and no access to livelihoods or income.

For every step forward, it can sometimes seem that two steps back soon follow.

A widespread vertical gardening project set up in limited space across the camps provides fresh vegetables. But heavy rains washed many of the gardens away and brought everyone back to square one.

Despite the precarious situation the sense of community among Rohingya in the camp is strong. Families seldom complain and are quick to open their homes and hearts to anyone who approaches their shelter.

People in the camps are very aware that their survival, as well as that of their children, is dependent on the continued support and generosity of the world.

Getting the message out

Many are doing what they can to ensure their story is not forgotten.

 

Rohingya news networks streaming news and opinions from people in the camps, and an increasingly vocal new generation of aspiring journalists, are broadcasting in English to international audiences.

They have growing numbers of followers on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter.

In early-2019 WFP trained 30 young men and women in storytelling and content creation for social media.

The WFP Storytellers, as they're known, spend their days documenting life in the camps and sharing it with the world.

The opportunity to share their stories with the world is something the Rohingya have spent decades fighting for.

Most of us have an identity that is recognised by those around us, we have citizenship and a place to call home, we have the ability to voice our opinions and practice our religion. But these are things the Rohingya have never experienced.

It sometimes seems as though a new normal has emerged in the lives of Myanmar's Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar.

 

Communities have formed, daily errands need to be completed, and family celebrations happen.

But it's important to remember that life as a refugee is not normal.

Hundreds of thousands of people have had their lives turned upside down and have no idea what the future holds.

Most want to return to Myanmar but they don't believe the conditions are right for their return.

They want citizenship, access to education, and recognition of their identities. And if the day comes for their return, it must be voluntary, safe and dignified.

The citizens of Cox's Bazar are commemorating two years of their new life this week. It was remembered it as a sombre occasion, full of pain and loss.

But they wonder whether the rest of the world remembers them too.

Gemma Snowdon is a communications officer for the United Nations World Food Programme.

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