The daily hardships of the camps are apparent in the crowded rows of ramshackle bamboo-and-tarpaulin huts, but there is also an unexpected orderliness to this makeshift community. The decade’s recent exodus is just the latest, largest wave of a refugee population that has been growing here for 30 years, and a semblance of civic and family life has emerged in the camps, along with markets, community centers, and places of worship.
While relief efforts are largely meeting refugees’ basic needs, life in the camps offers little more than survival, and many are desperate to escape to find work, go to school, or rejoin lost families. It’s a daunting, underground journey. Deprived of legal citizenship in their own country, and lacking identity and travel documents, refugees must hide or fake their identity and risk jail, or death under fire, to cross the nearby border.
An unknown number have braved this harrowing journey. Thousands more, who fled persecution before the latest exodus, have found their way to other countries in the region. As a result, Rohingya families are often splintered across multiple borders. Despite the numbers of Rohingya who have experienced the trauma of dislocation and family separation, however, no data existed to understand its impact. To clarify the dimensions of this crisis, the Centre for Peace and Justice at Bangladesh’s BRAC University, which has been conducting social and policy research on the Rohingya crisis, collaborated with The Asia Foundation on a new study, Mitigating Hardship with Mobility: The Coping Strategies of Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh.
The survey took place in a moment of upheaval: on August 25, 2019, Rohingya youth and community leaders staged a peaceful prayer rally to commemorate their second year in Bangladesh and call for Myanmar to grant them citizenship. Local media, encouraged by anti-Rohingya activists, mischaracterized the rally as an angry protest, and camp security officials took steps that included cutting cellphone and internet service, just as the survey began. The Bangladesh government announced that it was illegal for the Rohingya to have Bangladeshi SIM cards, and there were reports of Rohingya mobile phones being confiscated or destroyed. We were concerned that our enumerators’ tablets, along with the collected data, would be seized. Luckily, this did not occur.
Respondents spoke of the daily sorrows of camp life, the lack of mobility or possibilities, the boredom, the difficult conditions. They missed everything from home: Burmese cigarettes and coffee, lahpet thoke (pickled tea-leaf salad), and the lives they used to have. Some wept over family members jailed abroad and their abandoned property in Myanmar, often asking for help or information. Whenever possible, we directed them to NGOs that were working on these problems. The importance of this survey’s results—to find strategies to restore fractured families, clear the way for remittances from abroad, and support the Rohingya diaspora—was always on vivid display.
The research team is currently analyzing the survey results, and we expect to publish our findings in the coming months. The findings will help inform solutions to mitigate the impact of family separation and reduce the perils of illegal travel in pursuit of a better life.