I met Rohingya refugees 25 years ago — this time it’s different

UNHCR’s Caroline Gluck recounts her first visit to Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh and reflects on the changes she’s seen since.

Rohingya children stand outside shelters at Nayapara refugee camp in 1993. © UNHCR/Caroline Gluck

On a recent visit back home in the UK, I uncovered a box of old black-and-white print negatives. They were photos taken in Bangladesh when I was a journalist 25 years ago.

It was 1993 and I had traveled there on my way back from a trip to Myanmar, or Burma, as it was known then. I had been following a story about Rohingya refugees and mounting pressure to repatriate them.

It was a tense time. There were many protests by local Bangladeshis, urging the government to send the refugees back as quickly as possible.

Now it’s 2018 and I’ve just moved to Bangladesh. But this time, it’s different.

“It seemed to me they had totally given up hope.”

At Nyapara camp I meet Mohammed Jakariya, who arrived in Bangladesh two months earlier. He tells me he was among the wave of refugees I’d met a quarter of a century ago, and explains what has changed.

“Bangladeshis understand what we’ve suffered and help us as Muslim brothers,” says the 41-year-old, who fled his home Raimya Ghona village in Myanmar’s Maungdaw township, which has borne much of the recent violence.

“Back home, in Maungdaw, they burnt our houses, beat and killed people. Where I lived, I had no job, but I had a cow, land and a house. I had this before, but now, we have nothing.”

Mohammed fled to Bangladesh from his home in Maungdaw, Myanmar in the 1990s and again in 2017. © UNHCR/Caroline Gluck

More than 20 years ago, conditions for refugees were grim. Their bamboo shacks were hastily put together. And they had little in the way of services. But the thing I remember most, all these years later, is the dull expression in peoples’ eyes and faces. It seemed to me they had totally given up hope. I felt they were the most unwanted group I had ever met. Denied identity cards and citizenship in their homeland, facing violence and persecution, and now apparently unwanted in Bangladesh.

A Rohingya man carries water at Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh in 1993. © UNHCR/Caroline Gluck

At that time, nearly a quarter of a million Rohingya had fled to Bangladesh. With public sentiment pushing a speedy resolution, repatriations began in 1994. But the violence did not stop. Over the years, Rohingya continued to flee to Bangladesh, seeking shelter and safety.

“So many people died.”

And then the unprecedented influx began in August last year, when more than 688,000 Rohingya came across in just a few weeks, with horrific stories of arson, rape and torture — among them Mohammed.

“So many people died. I lost my 20-year-old son and my house was burned to the ground. That’s why we left again,” he explains.

Arrival numbers have now sharply dropped, but even so, several hundred people continue to cross into Bangladesh at a time when the two governments are making arrangements to pave the way for the start of repatriations to Myanmar.

Visiting the camps this time round, I was shocked by the massive scale of them and the difficult congested conditions people are living in, trying to construct new bamboo houses on hilly and muddy terrain. But I sensed a different feeling, too. Not hopelessness, but an impressive resilience and solidarity.

Despite the challenging conditions, youngsters were running around flying kites and sliding down hills on makeshift sleds.

Small stalls had appeared, with enterprising camp residents offering laundry services, mobile phone charging services and grocery stalls.

“Now, here we have our rights,” says Mohammed, capturing that spirit of resolve that permeates the camps this time around. “If I ever go back, I will go back as a citizen. We need respect.”

“I tell my children: we are here and we will stay here, until things change. I regret going back home all those years ago. I wish I had stayed here. Here, we’re safe.”

Caroline Gluck is senior public information officer for UNHCR in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Follow her on Twitter.