Rohingya: ‘Kill us, but don’t deport us to Myanmar’

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BBC South Asia Correspondent

In her four fragile years, Yasmin has lived a life of uncertainty, unsure where she belongs.

Born in a refugee camp in Bangladesh, she is unable to return to her ancestral village in Myanmar. At the moment, a dingy room in India’s capital, Delhi, serves as home.

Like hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people – an ethnic minority in Myanmar – Yasmin’s parents fled the country in 2017 to escape a campaign of genocide launched by the military.

Many fled to neighbouring countries like Bangladesh and India, where they live as refugees.

Five years on, Rohingya Muslims – the world’s largest stateless population, according to the UN – remain in limbo.

Yasmin’s father, Rehman, was a businessman in Myanmar. As the military brutally attacked people, he became one of 700,000 Rohingyas who fled in a mass exodus.

After walking for days, Rehman and his wife Mahmuda made it to the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, an area in south-eastern Bangladesh that is close to its border with Myanmar.

Here the couple lived in cramped conditions. Food shortages were common and they lived off rations from charities.

A year after they reached Bangladesh, Yasmin was born.

The Bangladesh government has been pushing for Rohingya Muslims to return to Myanmar. Thousands of refugees have been moved to a remote island called Bhasan Char, which refugees describe as an “island prison”.

Rahman felt that leaving Bangladesh would help his child have a better future.

And so in 2020, when Yasmin was just a few years old, the family crossed over into neighbouring India.

Estimates vary, but refugee organisations believe there are between 10,000 and 40,000 Rohingya refugees in India. Many have been in the country since 2012.

For years, the Rohingyas here have lived a modest life attracting little controversy. But after a federal minister tweeted this month that the refugees would be provided with housing, amenities and police protection, their presence in Delhi made fresh headlines.

Hours later India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government denied it had offered these facilities to Rohingya Muslims, instead describing them as “illegal foreigners” who should be deported or sent to detention centres.

This apparent change of tone has left families like Rehman’s disillusioned and desperate.

“The future of my child seems bleak,” he said, as he sat on a rickety wooden bed frame with no mattress.

“The government of India doesn’t want us either… but I’d rather they killed us than deported us to Myanmar.”

No nation is willing to take in the hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas. Last week Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michele Bachelet, that the refugees in her country must return to Myanmar.

But the UN says it’s unsafe for them to do so because of the conflict in Myanmar. In February 2021, the Myanmar junta – who are accused of crimes against the Rohingyas – took control of the country in a military coup.

Hundreds of Rohingyas have made perilous journeys by sea to countries such as Malaysia and the Philippines to escape the atrocities perpetrated by the junta.

The number of refugees in camps in Bangladesh has grown to close to one million. Half of them are children.

Like Rehman, Kotiza Begum also fled Myanmar in August 2017, walking for three days without any food.

She and her three children live in a single room in a camp in Cox’s Bazar. They have a plastic sheet as a roof, which offers poor protection from rain during the monsoons.

The horrors of what she left behind in her homeland are still fresh in her mind.

“The military entered our house and tortured us. As they opened fire, we ran. Children were thrown into the river. They just killed anyone in their paths.”

Like others in the camps, Kotiza is reliant on food rations from NGOs and charities, which are often limited to the basics such as lentils and rice.

“I can’t feed them the food they want, I can’t give them nice clothes, I can’t get them proper medical facilities,” she says.

Kotiza says she sometimes sells her rations to buy pens for her children to write with.

According to a recent UN assessment, cuts in international funding have added to the challenges for a population that remains “fully reliant on humanitarian assistance for survival”.

The UN said the refugees continue to struggle to get nutritious food, adequate shelter and sanitation, and opportunities to work. And education – one of Kotiza’s biggest priorities for her children – is also a big challenge. There are concerns of a lost generation, who aren’t getting decent schooling.

“The children go to school everyday, but there’s no development for them. I don’t think they’re getting a good education,” Kotiza says.

Children living in camps in Cox’s Bazar are taught the Myanmar curriculum – the curriculum of their home country – and not the one taught in schools in Bangladesh. While proponents of the programme say it’s to prepare students for a return to their homeland one day, others fear it’s a way to prevent the Rohingya refugee population from integrating with Bangladeshis.

“If they are educated, they can have beautiful lives. They can earn for themselves and live happily,” says Kotiza.

It’s a sentiment shared back in Delhi by Rehman, as he cradles four-year-old Yasmin in his arms.

“I dream of giving her a proper education and a better life, but I cannot,”

As Rohingyas around the world mark the fifth year since fleeing genocide, they still hope they will get justice – a case filed against the Myanmar military is still waiting to be heard at the International Court of Justice.

But more than that they dream of being able to return home.

Until things are safe for them to do so, refugees like Rehman are pleading with the world for more assistance and compassion.

“I am not here to steal, I’m here to save my life.”

(BBC News)

By Rajini Vaidyanathan