Just five months later, Saiful is dead. The authorities have not issued a death certificate for him. The cause of his death is unknown to his mother, save that his eyes turned yellow and his body became bloated.
Bangladesh, which faced the fastest growing refugee crisis seen in this century, has lauded itself for taking in the refugees and containing covid-19 among their population. But in finding solutions without the consent of refugees, the government has put their lives and livelihoods at a massive risk on both on the island and the mainland.
In 2017, the Myanmar military’s campaign forced 740,000 Rohingyas to flee, mainly to neighboring Bangladesh. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was widely lauded for allowing the refugees to cross the border. She was pictured consoling the refugees and famously reassured the world, “We have the ability to feed 160 million people of Bangladesh and we have enough food security to feed the 700,000 refugees.” Her party members gave her the title “mother of humanity.”
At the same time, Bangladeshi lawmakers complained that the refugees posed a painful economic and security challenge to Bangladesh. For more than 40 years, the country had been grappling with successive waves of Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar. In 1978 and in the 1990s, there were repeated cases of violence against the refugees as well as food restrictions that resulted in starvation and death. Diplomatic efforts to send the Rohingyas back home were hindered by a Myanmar government insincere in its readiness to repatriate the refugees.
Over the past four decades, Bangladesh national policy has been unable to devise anything that resembles a humane outcome for the Rohingya. The strong-arm tactics of the early days continue today in Bangladesh’s approach, including its covid-19 restrictions.
Bangladesh’s responsibility toward protecting refugees goes beyond the pandemic. Though there have so far been only 20 deaths among the refugee population as of July 6 (from a total of 1,827 cases), the harsh lockdown exacerbated already challenging camp conditions.
The movement restrictions deprived refugees of opportunities to earn income as day laborers in the informal sector. Health, water, sanitation and building materials provided by NGOs were also drastically cut, contributing to existing malnutrition and hunger.
Limitations on the refugee population exacerbated the effects of the pandemic. A ban on Internet access during the first five months of the pandemic prevented connection to relevant health information and hampered humanitarian work. Access to the few covid-19 campaigns were already limited because of the denial of formal education on both sides of the border, which has created a lost generation of children and adults in terms of literacy.
Covid-19 lockdowns were not the only restrictions on movement. The government installed nearly 90 miles of barbed-wire fencing in and around camps, a measure taken without any kind of consultation but promoted as necessary for the safety and security of the Rohingya — and which had the deadly consequence of preventing easy access to health care. The fencing hindered escape from a deadly fire on March 22. That disaster left about 50,000 people homeless in the world’s largest refugee settlement and most likely contributed to the spread of covid-19, as sources in Bangladesh’s Office of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner have acknowledged to me.
Rohingya spokesmen did not mince their words, describing the barbed-wire-encircled facilities as akin to concentration camps. Yet humanitarian and development organizations, and those responsible for the protection of refugees, did little or nothing to challenge the fencing. The policy milieu that exists has meant that the international organizations have failed to argue the case for rights for refugees as well as neglecting to empower or involve them in decisions that affect them.
Bhasan Char is the latest “solution” devised for the Rohingya without their consent. It is a white-elephant project and a blueprint for long-term trouble. The Rohingya are expected to survive on handouts instead of meaningful employment. The national government and the international humanitarian bureaucracy have fostered a dependency-driven relationship with the Rohingya — not unlike the situation they endured back in their homeland in Rakhine State in Myanmar, where they are kept dependent on public handouts. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Bhasan Char project has been designed above all to create rent-seeking opportunities for a variety of vested interests; protecting the Rohingya is clearly not the priority.
The refugees have become a means to an end. In the case of Saiful, the 10-year-old boy in Bhasan Char, and many others, it’s an end that does not even merit a death certificate.