“It was really difficult for me to get here. We came from really far away. We ran and ran and somehow got here. Even when I think about it now, it makes me want to cry,” Normeen told me.
Normeen is from Myanmar’s Rohingya community. Her family were shrimp farmers in Rakhine state. They had recently built a house, after years of saving up. Last month I met her in Cox’s Bazar, at one of the hastily built refugee camps in Bangladesh. Six months ago, at the start of the violence, Normeen’s house was burned to the ground. She and her family narrowly escaped out of a side door. She remembers “lots of gunfire”.
Over the past six months more than 600,000 Rohingya people have experienced the same terrifying journey as Normeen. In nearly 15 years working on humanitarian disasters, I have never seen a crisis like this. Since last August I have visited camps in Bangladesh regularly, to speak to the women and girls who have borne the brunt of the crisis in many ways. Many have experienced appalling sexual violence and lost children in Myanmar. I have heard from women whose husbands disappeared without explanation. Some led their families through rivers and mud for days. Some gave birth while on the journey. Many were malnourished by the time they crossed the border.
Half a year on from the violence that led them to flee, women like Normeen are struggling with the trauma of what they have seen and experienced. They’re concerned for their safety in the crowded camps. And they’re deeply afraid of what might come next.
Governments, including the UK’s, are understandably keen to solve this crisis; and in Bangladesh, pressure is growing to send the refugees back to Myanmar. This week it emerged that the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar have agreed to start repatriating some 6,000 refugees.
Yet before anyone is returned it is essential to listen to the refugees – and women in particular. The human rights violations that led Normeen and hundreds of thousands of others to flee Myanmar are still a threat. The Myanmar government still refuses to allow humanitarian and human rights organisations into Rakhine state – fuelling fears that the atrocities could be continuing. The UN has already said that the abuses visited upon the Rohingya people look like a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. The UN security council has heard from refugee experts that Rohingya people are still fleeing Myanmar – and that because of violations there the”conditions aren’t right” to return them.
Women in the camps have told us their priorities include community watch groups, to prevent violence in the camps; private toilets for women and girls, so they aren’t afraid of sexual attacks; and spaces where women and girls can talk, and process the horrors they have witnessed. We have also heard of their fear of being forcibly sent back, without assurances that they will be safe. In the words of one woman, who didn’t wish to be named: “I would go back only if I could be assured a good life, and if I could sleep without fear.”
These fears are entirely understandable. To be sure, a camp is not somewhere that anyone would want to stay permanently. I have seen the conditions for myself; entire families are confined to makeshift tents, made of tarpaulin and bamboo frames. Many thousands of people are living without electricity, and with inadequate washing facilities and sanitation. Women and their families badly need some form of livelihood, so they can live in dignity.
Still, it would be unconscionable for people like Normeen to be returned over the border against their will.
The UK’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, has said repeatedly that the Rohingya people must be allowed to return to their homes only voluntarily, under international oversight. He must now urgently hold Bangladesh and Myanmar to these words. The Rohingya people, and no one else, should be allowed to decide their future, reports The Guardian.