Refugees need more than food and housing

Forcibly displaced people, like Myanmar’s Rohingya, also have a need for truth, justice and memorialisation.

Rohingya refugees queue at an aid relief distribution centre at the Balukhali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar
Rohingya refugees queue at an aid relief distribution centre at the Balukhali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar on August 12, 2018 [Ed Jones/AFP]

The global refugee crisis is unprecedented, with more than 35.3 million people having been forcibly displaced worldwide due to conflict, violence, or natural disaster. Events like last month’s World Refugee Day are encouraging greater awareness of forcibly displaced people, but the scope of the global conversation on the needs and rights of refugees is still very limited. It is critical we recognise this growing population has not only physical needs, such as food and housing, but also intangible ones surrounding truth, justice, and memorialisation, particularly when their displacement is the result of fundamental human rights violations.

The nearly one million Rohingya refugees who, since August 2017, have fled persecution in Rakhine State, Myanmar and relocated to Bangladesh, offer a prime example of the complex needs facing displaced victims of government-sanctioned atrocities.

For decades, Myanmar’s Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority with their own language and culture, were subjected to mass killing, enforced disappearances, rape, torture, and other violations committed against them by Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, resulting in the largest forced human migration in recent history.

In Bangladesh, the majority of these refugees are women and children, with more than 40 percent below the age of 12, all of whom require and are deserving of psychosocial support and at least some form of resolution.

In an ideal world, this would entail Rohingya refugees participating in justice processes, including the formation of a truth-seeking mechanism, such as a truth commission, during which they are given the opportunity to bear testament to their experiences, point to questions of accountability, and encourage action when it comes to holding their perpetrators accountable. In reality, such formal measures are unlikely to happen any time soon, if ever. This does not, however, negate the demand for continued focus on the crimes committed in Myanmar against Bangladesh’s Rohingya population and the suffering they have endured.

Of course, when it comes to truth-telling initiatives and accountability efforts, the inherently itinerant existence of refugee communities presents unique challenges. Refugees generally do not have access to their own independent media and rarely are they afforded the opportunity to speak for themselves. There is a universal tendency, among host countries, to limit refugees’ agency and avenues for expression to prevent, for example, one million new residents from asserting a unified and, therefore, potentially disruptive voice.

International agencies do, at times, intervene by travelling to refugee camps and launching their own documentation initiatives. However, these interviews are conducted through intermediaries or “fixers”, meaning there are no guarantees that details do not get either omitted from the final narrative or lost in translation.

For refugees to heal and secure peaceful futures, it is essential that both the experiences that led to displacement from their home countries and the details of their current circumstances as displaced people in a foreign land are recorded and relayed in full. In short, they need platforms to share their experiences firsthand.

This is particularly true for women and girls, who are disproportionately affected by conflict and forced migration. Their voices have traditionally been excluded from mainstream media coverage as well as post-conflict negotiations, rebuilding efforts, and narratives, even though, for many, a new country does not necessitate safety or the freedom to speak about experienced abuse.

For example, in Cox’s Bazar, where the Bangladesh refugee camps are located, there has been a reported spike in domestic violence within the community. Because there is no legal recourse for harmful acts committed against women or children, they remain silent out of fear of retaliation from their abusers.

While the challenges to affording refugees the resolution they deserve vary, the solutions unilaterally rely upon giving them a safe way to not only tell and preserve their stories but also disseminate them to a global audience. One effective and sustainable support strategy is the organisation of on-site workshops, where leaders within the refugee community are trained in the facilitation of support groups, therapeutic arts initiatives, and/or documentation efforts that meet the standards of international tribunals.

This approach has proven successful in Cox’s Bazar where, over the past few years, in response to a need assessment by international agents, select residents have been invited to participate in various workshops to build the capacity of the Rohingya as documenters, advocates, counsellors, and peacebuilders.

Some of these workshops were gender specific, providing a safe space for women to simply share with each other their experiences and challenges or offering instruction in sewing, a common pastime, as a vehicle for collective storytelling. For the latter, women embroidered memories of the homes they fled, the injustices they endured, as well as their hopes for the future onto individual panels that were then sewn together and displayed online.

The inaugural quilting project inspired future ones. They are an essential element to larger documentation efforts, which might otherwise not have accessed or recorded these experiences. Additional pilot workshops that were offered to both women and men included educating refugees on formal and informal transitional justice processes, and in the creation of advocacy campaigns, providing mental health and psychosocial support, and gathering more traditional forms of documentation for future accountability.

When formal accountability measures are stalled or look unlikely, we can ensure refugees’ stories reach a mass audience by equipping them with instruction and technology that allow them to be the creators and distributors of their own content. This is why, in 2022, a year-long filmmaking programme was launched in Cox’s Bazar. The programme was led by Bangladeshi filmmakers, who trained residents to be both creators and instructors, allowing for a sustainable community of Rohingya filmmakers. “We want to open the eyes of the world to see things that have been hidden from them, and to understand our reality as it is,” said one of the inaugural participants.

A recent effort in Colombia grounded memorialisation and truth-telling initiatives firmly in the 21st century by facilitating the creation of a new podcast series of life stories of survivors featuring and produced by individuals from rural communities across the country. The medium and instruction allowed them to share their stories of survival in a country that, for more than five decades, was afflicted by a longstanding conflict between the government, rebel fighters, and paramilitaries, resulting in a wide spectrum of human rights violations. The series is a prime example of the type of support the international community can and should be providing the world’s growing number of refugees.

In follow-up surveys, participants from each of the pilot workshops for the Rohingya in Bangladesh have expressed an interest in sharing what they have learned with the wider community, which many, as leaders of network sub-groups in the camps, are well-equipped to do. Their feedback and enthusiasm are a powerful reminder that, in our efforts to support the world’s refugees, we need to think beyond the basics.

We should empower them to develop their own autonomous voice and document their stories, unmediated, by providing them with widely available tools and resources that abrogate the need for interference from external actors.

When international actors and domestic agencies based in capital cities lead or guide transitional justice processes, they will eventually depart, leaving local communities responsible for their own advocacy and memorialisation processes. This is why supporting the world’s refugees should not simply entail producing and implementing sensible recommendations from a group of experts. In fact, the strongest, most impactful recommendations often come from the voices of the communities. If broad swaths of these populations, including victims and survivors, women, elders, youth, and other marginalised groups, are not part of developing those processes, they are neither well-positioned to nor deeply invested in moving them forward.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.