Kutupalong is a refugee camp in Bangladesh. It is just a few kilometres from the porous, unruly border with Myanmar.
The camp is hidden discreetly from the main road, an anomaly placed without thought upon a landscape of uniformly square paddy fields. It sprawls outwards, a maze of tents becoming ever denser by the hour. Officially the UN say there are 13,000 refugees here. Unofficially it’s 300,000.
Kutupalong’s inhabitants are tired. In front of the BBC News cameras they sit motionless, hungry with foreheads creased with worry and eyes that radiate their owners stress. They are the Rohingya, a maltreated rural minority from Myanmar. According to the UN, they are the most persecuted race in the world.
It is why they are here, why they have uprooted their homes in the Rakhine state and fled, only stopping once their feet had firmly arrived on the soil of the first settlement west of the border. The Rohingya have been the victims of forced slavery, rape and genocide. They scarpered after troops, backed by local mobs, burned their villages. Land has been stolen, crops and goods looted. They have been excluded from all political and social life.
“The Myanmar Government has not criticised this treatment. Actually it encourages it. Inflames it even. The most widespread and heinous abuses are perpetrated by the military and the judiciary.”
The Myanmar Government has not criticised this treatment. Actually it encourages it. Inflames it even. The most widespread and heinous abuses are perpetrated by the military and the judiciary. In the last census in 2014, the Rohingya were ostracised. Only if they admitted to being Bangladeshi could they register as existing. The message is clear, the Rohingya are not Myanmarese.
But across the border, Bangladeshi policy is that the Rohingya are Myanmar’s problem. Often refugees are pushed back, belittling international law. The Rohingya are stateless: no civil rights, no passport, no access to law, education, healthcare or protection from the police, courts or army. I should add, making people stateless is also illegal.
The crisis is one of the most underreported in the world. One contributing factor could well be that the gravest, cruellest, state-sponsored persecution is being practised by pacifist Buddhists on jihadi-worshipping, sharia-loving Muslims. It just doesn’t really fit the status quo.
The Rohingya had lived peacefully alongside Buddhist peasants for hundreds of years. They are said to derive from Arab traders who converted the locals to Islam. They have their own language and were part of the ancient Arakan Empire. It was after the 1962 military coup that violence became systematic. The military bullied frightened peasants who turned on their neighbours and bullied them as catharsis.
And so now the Rohingya pile into Kutupalong, where they have been piling in since the 1970s. It is miserable, higgledy-piggledy and collapsing. From the aerial pictures above you can see small roofs of corrugated iron and plastic sheets, plastered together with rotting leaves. I can only imagine the small alleyways in between, overflowing with sewage, an impassable hotbed for cholera once the monsoons arrive.
There is precious little available to the camp’s ill-treated residents. The children born in the camp do not count as refugees as they are unregistered and unaccounted for. They do not play; it’s too hot for ball games. Facilities are kept bare, partly due to a lack of funding but also as a deterrent. Local Bangladeshis aren’t much better off and an extra group of mouths to feed who solely rely on handouts and goodwill whilst contributing almost nothing in return is certainly not ideal.
Conditions are worse outside of the camp’s invisible borders. The unofficial Kutupalong is bigger, dirtier, and meaner. There is less water, insufficient food and no rudimentary medicines. The Rohingya refugee crisis is exactly that – a crisis. And yet crisis seems a gross understatement, how can one pen the catastrophic breaking point these people currently find themselves in? Put simply, English has yet to evolve a word to best describe their suffering.
On Monday, the United Nations released a damning report accusing Myanmar’s military of genocide, albeit not expressingly saying the word and instead flirting with the notion as if they were a difficult wedding guest with explicit instructions not to mention the grooms’ previous marriage. The report stated: “The crimes in Rakhine state, and the manner in which they were perpetrated, are similar in nature, gravity and scope to those that have allowed genocidal intent to be established in other contexts.” and with the UN, that’s just about as close as you’re going to get.
Their investigators were denied access to Myanmar by the government but interviewed 875 witnesses who had fled the country. The report called for an inquiry by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Although the country is not a signatory to the Rome statute, and therefore likely to not be under the ICC’s jurisdiction.
The report also criticised Aung San Suu Kyi, 1st State Counsellor of Myanmar (essentially President) for her passive role over the past year. “(She) has not used her de facto position as head of government, nor her moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events in Rakhine state,” it said.
And the former Nobel peace prize winner, heralded as the face of a new democratic Myanmar, continued to neglect the topic in her next public outing on Tuesday. Discussing only poetry and literature in a speech at the University of Yangon. Only on Wednesday, through a government spokesperson, would she call the allegations, “false.”
International reaction was swift and unanimous. A sudden spree of worldwide condemnation. UN Secretary General António Guterres wrote: “The patterns of gross human rights violations and abuses committed by the security forces, undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law.”
And Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, joined other security council members in calling for prosecutions, saying: “The facts of the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya must be said, and they must be heard.”
As the Rohingya crisis continues to unravel before the world I am relieved that the sorry, persecuted people have finally become mainstream news after decades of under-reported oppression. But prayers and benevolence alone cannot save them. Not when they are unable to return home as their villages have been burned to the ground, their possessions having been redistributed amongst neighbours who have been indoctrinated against them by chronically discriminative propaganda.
The Rohingya, still stateless, are trapped. The UN report is certainly welcomed, but what difference will it ultimately make? Kutupalong is still expanding, cataclysmically. Refugees from across the border are still desperately making the unholiest of pilgrimages. The birth rate in the camp is unbelievably high. Where do these people go once they have outgrown their surroundings? There is no exit-river to this salty lake.
Now it is the city of Kutupalong: a city where no one exists. The most ghostly of ghost towns, close to the border, hidden, just off the main road.
Featured image: Wikicommons