In the sprawling refugee camp of Kutupalong, where despair often overshadows hope, Muhammad Zubair stands as a symbol of resilience. Zubair, the chairman of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, continues the work of his murdered friend, Mohib Ullah, who was gunned down for advocating on behalf of the Rohingya Muslims. Despite countless death threats, Zubair remains undeterred, driven by a deep commitment to his community’s dignity and a dream of returning to Myanmar.
The Rohingya crisis began in earnest six years ago when over 740,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar’s government-led violence, seeking refuge in Bangladesh. Denied citizenship in both Myanmar and Bangladesh, they found themselves trapped in a stateless limbo. Today, Kutupalong has become the world’s largest refugee camp, a makeshift home to a population larger than San Francisco. During the day, life may appear somewhat normal, but as night falls, the camp transforms into a perilous place marked by violence and fear.
The violence in Kutupalong is primarily attributed to rival insurgent groups, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and the Rohingya Solidarity Organization, both competing for control. Over 40 Rohingya refugees lost their lives in 2022, and the first half of the following year saw at least 48 more deaths. This upsurge in violence, coupled with rampant drug dealing and human trafficking, presents a significant challenge for the Bangladeshi government as they approach critical elections.
Fading International Response
When the Rohingya first arrived in Kutupalong, international donors flooded the camp with resources and aid. Western countries took the lead in supporting the humanitarian efforts, but today, fresh crises such as the war in Ukraine and the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan have diverted attention and resources elsewhere. Less than half of the $875 million required to fund the camp for a year has been raised, leading to deteriorating living conditions.
Impact of the Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated the refugees’ plight. Lockdowns prevented them from seeking casual work, which was crucial for supplementing their meager rations. Exploiting desperation, criminal gangs recruited refugees for drug smuggling, damaging the community’s image. Hunger and lack of opportunity pushed young people toward these dangerous paths, increasing the risk of human trafficking.
Elusive Dream of Return
For the Rohingya, the dream of returning to their homeland in Myanmar is fraught with challenges. Their original villages remain in ruins, and their return is contingent on political and security conditions that are far from stable. Bangladesh’s efforts to relocate some Rohingya to Bhashan Char, an isolated island, have been met with resistance, as refugees view it as another form of confinement.
China’s Role and International Mistrust
China has attempted to mediate repatriation deals, but its close ties with Myanmar’s military and its treatment of Uighur Muslims raise suspicions among the Rohingya. Even the return of democracy in Myanmar is seen with skepticism, as past quasi-democratic governments failed to protect the Rohingya. Mistrust runs deep, and many question the sincerity of newfound sympathy from Myanmar’s exiled National Unity Government.
As the Rohingya remain in limbo, their culture faces a slow erosion. Traditional attire and diets are giving way to more mainstream Bengali influences, and the younger generation, deprived of education, risks losing touch with their heritage. The international community must not forget their plight and work toward a just and lasting solution that ensures the Rohingya’s safe return and full citizenship rights in Myanmar.