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Mapping the Rohingya Diaspora: Lessons from the Camps

February 5, 2020

By Kawsher Ahamed and Rezaun Nahid Mercy

Since 2016, a violent campaign of persecution has driven an exodus of Myanmar’s predominantly Muslim Rohingya minority from their homes in the northern state of Rakhine into neighboring countries. Bangladesh, by far the predominant destination of this diaspora, is now the reluctant host to over a million Rohingya refugees in the world’s largest refugee settlement, near the seaside city of Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh.

The Moduchara camp stretches as far as the eye can see, with the mountains of Myanmar visible in the distance.

The daily hardships of the camps are apparent in the crowded rows of ramshackle bamboo-and-tarpaulin huts, but there is also an unexpected orderliness to this makeshift community. The decade’s recent exodus is just the latest, largest wave of a refugee population that has been growing here for 30 years, and a semblance of civic and family life has emerged in the camps, along with markets, community centers, and places of worship.

While relief efforts are largely meeting refugees’ basic needs, life in the camps offers little more than survival, and many are desperate to escape to find work, go to school, or rejoin lost families. It’s a daunting, underground journey. Deprived of legal citizenship in their own country, and lacking identity and travel documents, refugees must hide or fake their identity and risk jail, or death under fire, to cross the nearby border.

A Rohingya family carries vital aid back to their shelter in the Kutupalong camp.

An unknown number have braved this harrowing journey. Thousands more, who fled persecution before the latest exodus, have found their way to other countries in the region. As a result, Rohingya families are often splintered across multiple borders. Despite the numbers of Rohingya who have experienced the trauma of dislocation and family separation, however, no data existed to understand its impact. To clarify the dimensions of this crisis, the Centre for Peace and Justice at Bangladesh’s BRAC University, which has been conducting social and policy research on the Rohingya crisis, collaborated with The Asia Foundation on a new study, Mitigating Hardship with Mobility: The Coping Strategies of Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh.

Bamboo and tarpaulin shelters crowd a hillside amid the rice paddies of the host community.

The study asks where Rohingya refugees go, what they do, and what dangers they encounter, and it explores how connections within the Rohingya diaspora create opportunities and support systems. It considers safety and security, jobs and marriage, prospects for family reunification, and the role of remittances from abroad. Using both quantitative and qualitative methods, the study maps the illegal travels of Rohingya youth seeking higher education, the harrowing journeys of women and underage girls smuggled through Asia to wed fellow Rohingya, and the other perilous border crossings that so many Rohingya have undertaken.

Volunteer enumerators and research staff gather for a daily meeting in Camp 4 in Ukhiya, Cox’s Bazar.

The survey component of the study was conducted by 22 enumerators, all Rohingya volunteers, who canvassed 1,500 households in 26 different camps. It was impossible to recruit an equal number of male and female enumerators as originally planned, due to restrictive customs and the prevalence of female illiteracy. The final team consisted of seven female enumerators and 15 male enumerators, creating some challenges in getting a solid sample of responses. For example, one female respondent expressed concerns about being interviewed by a male survey team, saying that if unrelated men entered her home while her male relatives were away, there could be consequences for her. The research team quickly reassembled outside her home and conducted the interview through the wall, the first of many such occasions.

Interviewing a woman in Camp 16. Female respondents preferred to communicate with male enumerators from the inside the shelter.

The survey took place in a moment of upheaval: on August 25, 2019, Rohingya youth and community leaders staged a peaceful prayer rally to commemorate their second year in Bangladesh and call for Myanmar to grant them citizenship. Local media, encouraged by anti-Rohingya activists, mischaracterized the rally as an angry protest, and camp security officials took steps that included cutting cellphone and internet service, just as the survey began. The Bangladesh government announced that it was illegal for the Rohingya to have Bangladeshi SIM cards, and there were reports of Rohingya mobile phones being confiscated or destroyed. We were concerned that our enumerators’ tablets, along with the collected data, would be seized. Luckily, this did not occur.

Phone and internet service has remained disrupted, frustrating refugees trying to keep in touch with friends and family outside the camps. Many expressed deep anxiety over their inability to contact family members abroad, on whom they often relied for remittances to maintain the semblance of a normal life. “I have two sons working in Saudi Arabia, and I need money for my daughter’s wedding,” said a 60-year-old male respondent in Camp 1E. “I need to arrange for her dowry, but I can’t get them the message.”

A female enumerator with a female respondent in Camp 5.

The Rohingya, by law, are not allowed to work in Bangladesh, and most refugee families have no means of support apart from the basic aid they receive in the camps. Remittances from relatives abroad make a significant difference in the well-being of Rohingya households. A single mother of three said her children last ate beef during Eid, the traditional religious festival when meat is distributed to the poor. They had been asking her when she would cook meat again. Sitting under her tarp roof, she said she had been selling rations to meet her family’s other needs and didn’t expect to be able to serve beef again until next Eid.

A Rohingya shopkeeper in Kutupalong camp offers merchandise that reminds refugees of their homes in Myanmar.

Respondents spoke of the daily sorrows of camp life, the lack of mobility or possibilities, the boredom, the difficult conditions. They missed everything from home: Burmese cigarettes and coffee, lahpet thoke (pickled tea-leaf salad), and the lives they used to have. Some wept over family members jailed abroad and their abandoned property in Myanmar, often asking for help or information. Whenever possible, we directed them to NGOs that were working on these problems. The importance of this survey’s results—to find strategies to restore fractured families, clear the way for remittances from abroad, and support the Rohingya diaspora—was always on vivid display.

The research team is currently analyzing the survey results, and we expect to publish our findings in the coming months. The findings will help inform solutions to mitigate the impact of family separation and reduce the perils of illegal travel in pursuit of a better life.

This research is part of the X-Border Local Research Network, a partnership between The Asia Foundation, the Carnegie Middle East Center, and the Rift Valley Institute, supported by UK aid, from the UK government.

Kawsher Ahamed and Rezaun Nahid Mercy are research associates at the Centre for Peace and Justice at BRAC University, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. They can be reached at kawsher.ahamed@bracu.ac.bd and mercy.rezaun@bracu.ac.bd, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation or the UK government.

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