Playing ping pong with Rohingya lives

A version of this article was published in Dhaka Tribune on 6th July 2017

If you walk around in Kutupalong, you will get an urge to dismantle the set of institutions, practises and relationships which have created the place. You will want to do so because you will find it impossible to understand the tolerance for the kind of incoherence and injustice you will see all around you. If you are a Bangladeshi and you realise that this area is part of your country, you will find it hard to conceive what the incentives or inducements were or are that have led the powers that be and all the other forces to create and maintain such a place. Even if you view Kutupalong as a stage where dramas about recent history are performed, you will question the sense of such  repetitious and costly productions. Costly in every sense. What purpose do these serve, you  will ask yourself. Myanmar's crimes against humanity and crimes against peace have not yet been deliberated upon properly in international fora. But who will take into account and argue that the crimes perpetrated by Myanmar are compounded in places like Kutupalong -  a place that is supposed to provide refuge for vulnerable people?

An amazing capacity abounds here for forgetting, ignoring or bypassing what is unpleasant or inconvenient. Indeed whatever goes against basic tenets of humanity and of course international law. Let us begin with the late 70s when the first mass exodus of more than 200,000 Rohingya refugees happened. This is what Human Rights Watch stated in their report:

Expecting to find protection, these refugees only found further persecution by a (Bangladeshi) government that was as keen to see the back of them as their own. Over 12,000 refugees starved to death as the Bangladesh government reduced food rations in the camps in order to force them back, and following a bilateral agreement between the two governments, the majority of refugees were repatriated less than 16 months after their arrival (THE ROHINGYA MUSLIMS Ending a Cycle of Exodus? Vol. 8, No. 9 (C), September 1996)

 Another big exodus from Burma happened in 1991. And another set of forced repatriations took place in 1992 and 1993. It was equally merciless. There were clashes between refugees and Bangladeshi authorities and there were fatalities. Those repatriated, some 50,000, could not be traced by the UNHCR three years later.  A little over a decade later, in November of 2004, over a dozen Rohingya died and scores injured during another episode of forced repatriation from the camps of Bangladesh. 

Forgetting international conventions and norms, and more tragically the history of its own citizens, the Bangladesh government's first defence of this action offered to the public and to the world at large was that Bangladesh was a poor country and could not possibly cope with such large numbers of refugees. And indeed whatever the political hue of the  government of the day,  the arena of discourse, reflection and policy pronouncements has not shifted in four decades. Its single-minded resolve is to return the Rohingya. Over the years, the government has managed to rope in UNHCR into doing its bidding by categorising Rohingya as "economic migrants" and hence, all importantly, not asylum seekers. And so it follows that the needs and vulnerabilities of those in the camps is not of  concern.  They need only be returned. 

Surely all this stands as one of the signal under-achievements in the annals of refugee history to have been  unable to force an awareness of the shortcomings of this approach? Local integration and settlement is anathema to repatriation. This is easy to understand.  But what is not understandable is how Sheikh Hasina in July of 2017 can still see repatriation as an objective when all the evidence points to the fact that the root of these cyclical influxes into Bangladesh is the denial of citizenship to Rohingya in Myanmar, and the pernicious persecution they face? Let's partially list these shall we: murder, rape, physical torture, forced relocation, herding into camps, land and property confiscation, compulsory labour,  limitations on access to education, employment, and public services, restrictions on marriage, limitation on the practise of religion, the destruction of mosques et cetera. 

In the meantime, generations of stateless children are growing up in poverty, without opportunities, without any possibility of social mobility and in conditions my images on this page fail to adequately convey.  You need to visit the place really to get a proper feel. And when you see and hear the children play, their voices of course have the same pitch and key and tone of children anywhere else on the planet, and with their screams they are telling you that they are there and that they have hope despite their maladies and malnutrition.

Freud makes a distinction between mourning and melancholia. From what I remember of my reading, mourning is when one accepts the loss and one moves on. In melancholia, one does not accept the loss. The loss becomes incorporated into one's being and so one continually remembers it. Walking around in Kutupalong, one feels melancholia because the Bangladesh government won't have it any other way.

This article was published in Dhaka Tribune on 6th July 2017


Facts and Figures

Rohingya refugees who fled persecution in Myanmar in the early 90s and their progeny, currently reside in two "official" or "registered" camps - Kutupalong and Nayapara. These are the "registered Rohingya".  Over the years, there have been successive waves of refugees but the Bangladesh government and UNHCR have actively not registered these refugees. In March of 2017 there were 33,148 registered Rohingya. UNHCR estimates a total of circa 200,000 unregistered Rohingya whereas the Bangladesh government estimates 300,000-500,000.   They reside in the surrounding villages as well as areas adjacent to the formal camps. These "unregistered" camps include Kutupalong Makeshift Camp, Balukhali and Leda. 


There were originally 20 Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. Now two remain - Kutupalong & Nayapra

ECCD = Early Child Care and Development

Children's lives continue to be dictated by a government agenda that views them as temporary residents, thereby denying them education and every life opportunity. 

Education Denied

In the registered camps, Rohingya children are not schooled beyond Class 7 or circa age 12 years. The schools are very over crowded.  In the unregistered areas, there is no provision by the Government or the UN despite the demographic urgency. There are limited and very uneven private initiatives.  A generation of children face the real possibility of growing up without being able to read or write. The psychological impact should not be underestimated.  

The violent operation unleashed by the Myanmar army in October of 2016 created over 75,000 Rohingya refugees.  Many of these refugees are in a neighbouring makeshift camp called Balukhali - where these children are playing. 

Majority of kids below 5 in the camp run around naked. They can be seen playing near open sewers. Risk of infection is high. Malnutrition rate is higher in the unregsitered part of Kutupalong camp. 

Working children

Rohingya children can be seen to perform numerous jobs in both the registered and unregistered camps - manning stalls, selling firewood, fetching firewood, fetching 25kg sacks of rice, sewing, fetching water, fetching mud etc. They are also employed as household help by local Bengali families and by more established Rohingya families. 

"Poverty and illiteracy in Cox's Bazar district contribute to negative attitudes towards the refugees" UNHCR


From the late 80s onwards, reports by various organisations have pointed out cases of disappearances of young girls. It is no surprise that traffickers have exploited the vulnerability of Rohingya women and children. Furthermore given the "unregistered" status of the overwhelming majority of Rohingya refugees, the families of victims have little or no recourse to the authorities upon discovery of the crime. Trafficked unregistered Rohingya children also face a double whammy of not being able to return to Bangladesh - through legal channels - even upon discovery and rescue/release in a third country, and even if their guardians or parents are in Bangladesh. 

Rohingya mother with photo of trafficked child. The little girl went to work as a dometic help and never came home. 

More Information

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All text, video and images: Copyright Shafiur Rahman. 

Thanks to K Jandoo and H Bahra. Fixers: M Ahmed, S Begum, S Nirob, A Rashid & A Z Shamim