Who are the Rohingyas? Short answer: more than a million displaced refugees who fled from Burma to neighboring Bangladesh to escape persecution four years ago, and whose future remains very uncertain even today.
The Rohingyas have long have been a matter of regional, as well as international concern. On March 25, Pakistan, Bangladesh’s western neighbor, urged the global community to work together to “mitigate” conditions for the long-endangered Rohingya people.
Triggering the latest concerns: a massive fire in a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, eastern Bangladesh. More than a dozen refugees were killed, and over 10,000 makeshift tent shelters were destroyed.
As Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zahid Hafeez Chaudry put it: the incident is “a sad reminder of the continuing sufferings of Rohingya Muslims.” At least 55,000 shelter camp residents were affected. 1.2 million Rohingya now live there, and early reports said at least 400 were listed as missing.
Telling images reflect their hard-to-imagine daily existence
One wide angle photo published by Getty’s Yousuf Tushar shows 113 mostly turbaned survivors searching for their lost belongings beneath a field of fire-twisted rubble in Cox’s Bazar. In the background, a column of lingering smoke lurks above the ruins.
The smoke had billowed over the camp, which sprawls over 8,000 acres in a sliver of coastal land near the Bangladesh-Burma border. (Burma this century has been officially re-named Myanmar).
Over several hours, hundreds of firefighters had tried to extinguish the blaze while rescue workers sought to pull people to safety. Doctors Without Borders told CBS News that many of the missing were believed to be children.
A desperate Bangladesh government, despite opposition by U.N. agencies, has recently transferred 14,000 Rohingyas to its offshore Bhasan Char island. But that also is hazardous, frequently flooded during spring by the surrounding Indian Ocean.
Likely steps ahead
As a former foreign correspondent and later deputy director at VOA, I was directly involved in reporting or editing hundreds of reports from 1962-1998 of international tragedies and peacemaking initiatives the world over.
I see these as the principal unanswered questions about the fate of the Rohingyas:
—What were the causes of the latest fire in the Cox’s Bazaar camp? Was this accidental, or a calculated attempt by a group of understandably frustrated camp residents crying out for help?
—How can the international community, working closely with Bangladesh authorities and with responsible leaders in the camps (both in Cox Bazaar and on the Bhasan Char island) now address the problem?
—What might be the best and swiftest global effort to organize legitimate funding to address the multiple crises inherent in solving a crisis plaguing a million lives for the past four years, and more?
—How can organized international teamwork, including sufficient and effective contact with responsible leaders in the camps, help design an effective, long-term solution? How can word spread about relieving this humanitarian crisis?
Western international broadcasters and Japan are moving to help
Fortunately, steps toward “spreading the word” already are underway:
In January of 2020, the BBC World Service distributed a map electronically on the web showing the locations in Bangladesh of 13 Rohingya refugee camps with a total population of more than 939,000. Many more refugees have arrived in Bangladesh since then. The BBC has regularly reported on their plight.
The Voice of America on July 29, 2019, launched a Rohingya language capability within its Bangla Service. This includes coverage of the refugees, providing them with news on security, family reunification, food rations, education and health — including vaccinations and water purification.
The same year, a VOA Learning English team also went to Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, at the invitation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The team did six days of intensive training on teaching techniques for 100 selected English teachers in the camps. The teachers, in turn, pledged to train another 5,000 camps residents. English competency enhances job applications by the refugees.
On March 18, the Japanese Embassy in Dhaka announced a $10 million emergency fund for the refugees, to be distributed by the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. The main message from the U.S., British and Japanese: your plight is not overlooked by a world of supporters, spanning three continents.
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More