This time last year, Bangladesh opened its borders to Rohingyas who were fleeing for their lives from a brutal military crackdown in Myanmar
One year has now passed since the security forces in Myanmar began a crackdown which has forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims to leave their homes behind and find refuge in a different country.
Bangladesh has its own share of problems, with over 160 million citizens crammed into its 147,570 square kilometres.
The country already deals with massive floods, occasional cyclones and other adverse effects of climate change, not to mention the complexities of a growing economy and unplanned urbanization, and the lingering threat of militancy.
Yet when the time came, Bangladesh opened its borders and has now taken in over 700,000 Rohingyas since August 2017, sheltering them in the sprawling refugee camps of the Cox’s Bazar south-eastern border district.
“It’s not easy for any country which is already stressed with its own economy,” Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, a humanitarian physician and a prominent British lawmaker, told the Dhaka Tribune after visiting the camps last November.
“I think Bangladesh has been amazing, opening its border and taking so many people.”
The latest episode of the Rohingya crisis began to unfold a year ago, when the Myanmar security forces retaliated to an attack on 30 border outposts and army bases by Rakhine’s insurgent group, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
The August 25 insurgent attack killed 11 Myanmar security personnel, according to US-based rights watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Surveying satellite images, the HRW believes about 354 villages in northern Rakhine – over one third of the total – have since been partially or completely destroyed by fire. The destruction encompasses tens of thousands of structures that were previously homes of Rohingyas.
The United Nations has described the crackdown as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, saying the Myanmar Army and local Mogh mobs have burned all of the estates on the ground after killing and raping the inhabitants.
To escape the violence, Rohingyas started to flee their homes and make the hazardous crossings of hilly areas and the Naf River to find refuge in Bangladesh.
In the past year, more than 700,000 Rohingyas, many of whom are children, have crossed into Bangladesh and taken shelter in makeshift refugee camps erected in Cox’s Bazar.
The 2017 Rohingya crisis did not just put Myanmar under the spotlight, but also Bangladesh – for its humanitarian efforts.
At the early stage of the crisis, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said Bangladesh had opened its door to the Rohingyas on humanitarian grounds.
“Bangladesh is not a rich country, but if we can feed 160 million people, we can manage another 500,000 or 700,000 people,” she told a foreign news outlet in September – the peak time of the crisis.
“If necessary, we will eat one meal a day and share another meal with these distressed people. After all, we are human beings and we stand for mankind.”
Hasina’s statement was warmly appreciated by many, including other countries and eminent personalities.
“She has done a lot for the refugees (and) Bangladesh has proven that it has (a) big heart,” Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire told the Dhaka Tribune when she visited Cox’s Bazar in February.
During his visit to Cox’s Bazar in July, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres spoke of the scale of Bangladesh’s sacrifice.
“Bangladesh opened its border – in a world where unfortunately many borders are still closed,” the UN chief said in a post-visit press conference.
World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, who accompanied the UN chief during the visit, said: “Bangladesh has shown great leadership in this evolving humanitarian crisis by providing refuge for the Rohingya people.”
A long-standing problem
Although the latest crisis is the worst yet, Bangladesh has been accepting Rohingya refugees in waves since the late 1970s.
Significant numbers of Rohingyas sought and found refuge in Bangladesh in 1978, 1991-92, 2012 and 2015-16.
Before August 25, 2017, more than 400,000 Rohingya refugees were already living in the camps in Cox’s Bazar.
After the latest exodus, more than 1.1 million Rohingya refugees are currently living in Cox’s Bazar, making it the largest and the fastest established refugee shelter in world.
The next step
Having to host over a million refugees is taking its toll on Cox’s Bazar, however.
The makeshift settlements are putting pressure on the environment, the host community, existing infrastructure, and social services that were already constrained.
Several national and international humanitarian groups have been working on providing support to the traumatized refugees since the beginning of the crisis. Several countries have also sent relief items, but it is still not enough.
“Bangladesh has accepted to protect and to assist more than one million Rohingyas at the present moment (despite) being a developing country with many challenges in its own development process,” UN chief Antonio Guterres said.
“Because of that, it’s the moment to appeal to the international community to express a much stronger solidarity, both with the Rohingya and with Bangladesh that is hosting them.”
Nobel Peace Laureates Shirin Ebadi and Tawakkol Karman, who accompanied fellow Nobel Laureate Mairead Maguire during her visit to the Rohingya camps, urged the other Muslim countries to follow Bangladesh’s example and step forward to help the Muslim-majority ethnic community.
Nay San Lwin, coordinator of UK-based Free Rohingya Coalition, said Bangladesh should be commended for hosting more than a million refugees and survivors.
“I think they are doing their best, but as they need to do everything (through) diplomatic channels, they won’t be able to do as (much as) we like.
“So I think the US, the UK, the European Union and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) should stand with Bangladesh and pressure the Myanmar government to accept the demands of Rohingya survivors.”