Halima* was among the mass exodus of Rohingya people – close to 80 per cent of them women and children – who began fleeing a military crackdown in Myanmar on August 25 last year. Speaking through a translator, the 18-year-old said she’d watched on as her husband was killed trying to protect her from a Burmese soldier who was attempting to rape her during a village attack. All around them, homes were burned to the ground. But there was no time to mourn him. She had to walk for seven days straight, heavily pregnant, to cross the border into Bangladesh.
She now lives in a camp outside the coastal town of Cox’s Bazar, in a stiflingly hot bamboo and tarp tent, with her seven-month-old son, Ali. He was born, malnourished, in the Bangladesh camps. “I wake up each morning, say my prayers, cook food and every fortnight go along to collect rations [lentils, rice and cooking oil] from the aid group distributions. There are a lot of unfilled hours during the day and I think about how lonely I am and how I have no family support or earning capacity,” Halima told The Saturday Paper.
Ahead of the first anniversary of the Rohingya refugee crisis, and amid a debate back in Australia about diverting foreign aid to drought-stricken farmers, a delegation of Australian politicians visited the sprawling camps near Cox’s Bazar. Several expressed support for a special intake of Rohingya refugees into Australia during the trip.
Halima watched intently as the group – which included Coalition MP Damian Drum, Labor’s immigration spokesman Shayne Neumann and Ged Kearney, and former Democrats leader Natasha Stott Despoja – received a briefing about Australian-funded aid projects. She held her young son in her arms.
“I came here because I wanted to tell them that I want to go to a different country and seek a different future for myself and my son. I want to be able to study and get a job,” Halima said. “I don’t know the names of any countries apart from Myanmar and Bangladesh, but I just want to go somewhere else.”
In the end though, shyness set in, compounded by a lack of English. Halima has received only a Year 5 education. She explained that back in Myanmar, despite her wishes to continue her education, she faced family pressure to enter an arranged marriage at age 17 for “safety reasons”, because her father had died. Culturally, Rohingya girls once they hit puberty are kept in isolation until they are married.
For Halima, neither staying in Bangladesh nor returning to Myanmar seem like viable options. Her homeland holds too many traumatic memories and the threat of further persecution, while sex trafficking, assault and harassment are real safety risks for women in the Bangladesh camps.
“I’m always worried walking around; it’s scary to be by myself,” she said.
For Shayne Neumann, the man set to become Australia’s immigration minister should Labor win the next election, this trip was his first visit to a refugee camp. He said the sheer scale was confronting. The mega camp near Cox’s Bazar is home to some 600,000 displaced people, crammed into a 16-kilometre radius. Monsoon rains and landslides are exacerbating the squalid conditions. Neumann described an encounter with a Rohingya father. “He couldn’t speak English, but he was miming things he had seen and experienced – machine guns being shot, throats being slit, people being harmed,” the Queensland MP told The Saturday Paper.
“If the government wants to put a proposal to Labor in relation to a special intake like we did with the [12,000] Syrians and Iraqis, Labor is up for that conversation,” he said.
Neumann believes there is scope for Australia to ramp up assistance.
“Australia has an obligation as a wealthy country in the region to do a lot more.”
Damian Drum, the Nationals member for Murray in northern Victoria, said that if the status quo in the Bangladesh refugee camps remained for much longer, some Rohingya people might want third-country resettlement. Asked if he thought there could be an appetite in Australia for a special intake, Drum says: “I do. Once people are aware of the situation here, I imagine they would be very empathetic.”
The Coalition MP noted there were Australian rural towns crying out for unskilled labour in industries such as agriculture and meat processing. “The Rohingya refugees have a very strong work ethic,” he said. Drum saw the situation as a regional security issue. “If you leave these people here, who have done nothing wrong … and they lose hope, it won’t just be the people smugglers who move in. My larger worry would be they would be embraced [by extremists promoting] radicalisation.”
Bangladesh Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam says third-country resettlements “could be an option if the problem is protracted for a long time”. He emphasised that Australia’s voice, not just its money, was important and that the country should also be pushing for justice and persuading Myanmar to find a sustainable political solution to what has been 40 years of violence.
Last year, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a deal to voluntarily repatriate Rohingya people back to the troubled Rakhine state. But local authorities and aid groups flagged that it wasn’t realistic to expect people to return any time soon. They are keen to avoid a “revolving door situation”. A separate group of 300,000 Rohingya people have been living in Bangladesh camps since violent flare-ups in the 1990s.
The Rohingya Muslim minority face systemic discrimination, restricted access to education and health care and are denied citizenship in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. One-time pro- democracy leader turned de facto prime minister Aung San Suu Kyi has attracted global criticism for failing to rein in the Myanmar military. The United Nations has characterised the situation as a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing”. The documented atrocities are manifold. An estimated 9000 to 13,700 people were murdered. Entire villages were destroyed, women were gang-raped, babies were thrown into fire.
The Myanmar government has built transit camps in preparation for returnees from Bangladesh, but Rohingya people fear they will be confined to these centres permanently and not allowed to rebuild their villages. That’s what happened to 125,000 Rohingya people who have been living in prison-like conditions in internally displaced people’s camps in Myanmar since spates of violence in 2012.
In order to support the Rohingya refugees and host communities between March and December 2018, the United Nations set a fundraising target of $US950 million. So far only $US356 million has been donated. Australia has provided $70 million in assistance to the crisis since September last year, the sixth-largest donor according to the UN.
Money aside, day-to-day challenges are stretching aid groups in the field.
Save the Children’s Bangladesh country director, Mark Pierce, is particularly concerned about a generation of Rohingya children missing out on formal education. Rohingya children aren’t allowed to attend local Bangladeshi schools. Save the Children is trying to fill the void with 117 learning centres throughout the camps, though the programs only cater for four to 14-year-olds and run for a few hours a day.
On the health front, agencies are desperately trying to prevent deadly disease outbreaks such as cholera, which causes severe diarrhoea and dehydration. The Australian political delegation inspected Oxfam water and sanitation projects. They learnt about the continuing efforts to build enough gender-segregated toilets that have some level of privacy and lights at night.
There’s also a baby boom within the Rohingya refugee population in Bangladesh, with up to 48,000 potentially malnourished babies expected to be born this year.
Labor MP Ged Kearney, a former nurse, said one of the hardest things was seeing the very basic labour ward at a health clinic.
“First I thought it had something to do with work but then I realised that was where women were going to labour,” she said. “That really had a big impact on me. I was really upset.”
Most women in the camps, she learnt, were giving birth alone in their tents on dirt floors without any medical assistance.
Kearney also found herself doing mental medical assessments of the children she encountered.
“Even though they are cute and lovely, I could see the health problems. Their hair was matted, they were grubby, they clearly had skin disorders … they’re kind of minor things that have been put aside because there are bigger things to deal with, but you think down the track there will be troubles health-wise.”
Mark Pierce said 2019 is shaping up as a crisis year for the Rohingya emergency. An election is due in Bangladesh by year’s end and the national government is putting off making major long-term decisions. “There is no thinking from January onwards,” he said.
For now, though, aid groups are focused on the monsoon season, which is fast approaching. They are scrambling to ensure the shelters that are home to hundreds of thousands of refugees outside Cox’s Bazar aren’t washed away in rains, flash floods, landslides and potential cyclones come October.
Lisa Martin travelled to the Bangladesh Rohingya refugee camps with assistance from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Save the Children.
* Name has been changed to protect safety.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 18, 2018 as "Rohingya intake". Subscribe here.