UN says Myanmar’s Muslim minority group is being subjected to forced labour, sexual violence and denied of citizenship.
Kutupalong makeshift camp in Cox’s Bazaar, southeastern Bangladesh, was the first refugee camp I ever visited.
It was 2010, and I remember being viscerally struck by the stench of paths that felt paved with sewage; the atmosphere of fear among the Rohingya refugees inside; and the claustrophobic crush of mud huts and tents packed so tightly together that they looked like they were built on top of each other.
The conditions at that camp, home to about 100,000 Rohingya at the time, were the worst I had seen anywhere – and not much has changed since.
Years later, on a trip to several camps in northern and southern Thailand – also home to thousands of refugees from Myanmar – a very different sight lay in wait.
The people there still lead a hard life, but the conditions are not inhumane. Their camps are organised, relatively spacious, and clean.
Now, the Thai government is moving forward on a project with the European Union, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and local NGOs to provide support to undocumented Myanmar Muslims – most of them Rohingya refugees – by improving access to basic services like education and healthcare.
The project will address the needs of Myanmar Muslims, but will also cover disadvantaged Thais who live in the same areas, including hill tribe communities whose living standards are far below the rest of the people in the country.
Keep in mind that Thailand’s Education for All policy means that in theory undocumented migrant children should be able to go to school anyway. This project is an effort to stamp out the obstacles that still remain, to make access smoother.
Southeast Bangladesh, home to the Rohingya camps and settlements, is also among the worst performers in the country when it comes to sanitation, nutrition and education.
But the Bangladesh government has always resisted international efforts to provide services to the Rohingya, which would also have a knock on effect on the underprivileged Bangladeshis who live around there.
Neither Bangladesh nor Thailand are signatories to the United Nation’s 1951 Refugee Convention, the key legal document underpinning refugee rights around the world. Yet the differences in how the two countries have treated the persecuted Rohingya could not be more stark.
Thailand is a richer country than Bangladesh and is less densely populated. But that doesn’t fully explain away the differences.
What Thailand has done – with the Karen, Kachin and Shan refugees who came earlier from Myanmar, and the Rohingya refugees later – is to engage with the refugee population and operate using a framework of international cooperation.
Organisations such the The Border Consortium, a group of nine international NGOs, and others play a large role in administering the camps in Thailand.
“We work closely with the Thai government, because it always becomes an issue of national law and how the national law allows undocumented migrants to access services,” says Chiaki Lee, the project’s manager at IOM.
“And we also work closely with local NGOs, because they are the ones that provide community-based services.”
The Bangladesh government, on the other hand, seems to have settled on the tactic of sticking their head in the sand and hoping the problem will go away.
After 25 years, it still hasn’t.
The first big wave of Rohingya refugees came to Bangladesh in the early 1990s. Many more have arrived after violence in 2012, and then again in 2016.
Estimates of Rohingya population in Bangladesh varies from 300,000 to 600,000.
For the Rohingya and the NGOs supporting them, there is little clarity on what the government is thinking.
Organisations like Doctors Without Borders and the UN Refugee Agency tiptoe around the camps trying to get their work done, constantly worried about having access cut off if the government gets offended or just changes its mind on a whim.
This has severe repercussions. Far from trying to make access to education smoother, Rohingya children in Bangladesh don’t have any right to education at all, unless they are one of the roughly 20,000-30,000 people living in two official UN refugee camps, in which case they get to study until they are 12. No secondary education is allowed.
Rohingya refugees have to sneak their children to school outside their camps, or set up illegal schools inside – always worried it might get shut down.
Forget the other stuff that’s part of the EU-IOM project in Thailand – access to legal aid, livelihood support, and protection against domestic violence.
Some Bangladeshi officials recognise the problem that’s brewing.
“How long can you treat people like this?” asked a senior official at the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics who was involved in carrying out a recent census of the Rohingya population. He asked not to be named because he was worried about a backlash from his superiors.
“They must be so resentful toward us. Is it smart to have this large group of people in the middle of your country growing more and more resentful by the day?”