If you walk around in Kutupalong, you will get an urge to dismantle the set of institutions, practises and relationships which have created the place. You will want to do so because you will find it impossible to understand the tolerance for the kind of incoherence and injustice you will see all around you. If you are a Bangladeshi and you realise that this area is part of your country, you will find it hard to conceive what the incentives or inducements were or are that have led the powers that be and all the other forces to create and maintain such a place.
Even if you view Kutupalong as a stage where dramas about recent history are performed, you will question the sense of such repetitious and costly productions. Costly in every sense. What purpose do these serve, you will ask yourself. Myanmar’s crimes against humanity and crimes against peace have not yet been deliberated upon properly in international fora. But who will take into account and argue that the crimes perpetrated by Myanmar are compounded in places like Kutupalong – a place that is supposed to provide refuge for vulnerable people?
An amazing capacity abounds here for forgetting, ignoring or bypassing what is unpleasant or inconvenient. Indeed whatever goes against basic tenets of humanity and of course international law. Let us begin with the late 70s when the first mass exodus of more than 200,000 Rohingya refugees happened. This is what Human Rights Watch stated in their report:
Expecting to find protection, these refugees only found further persecution by a (Bangladeshi) government that was as keen to see the back of them as their own. Over 12,000 refugees starved to death as the Bangladesh government reduced food rations in the camps in order to force them back, and following a bilateral agreement between the two governments, the majority of refugees were repatriated less than 16 months after their arrival (THE ROHINGYA MUSLIMS Ending a Cycle of Exodus? Vol. 8, No. 9 (C), September 1996)
Another big exodus from Burma happened in 1991. And another set of forced repatriations took place in 1992 and 1993. It was equally merciless. There were clashes between refugees and Bangladeshi authorities and there were fatalities. Those repatriated, some 50,000, could not be traced by the UNHCR three years later. A little over a decade later, in November of 2004, over a dozen Rohingya died and scores injured during another episode of forced repatriation from the camps of Bangladesh.
Forgetting international conventions and norms, and more tragically the history of its own citizens, the Bangladesh government’s first defence of this action offered to the public and to the world at large was that Bangladesh was a poor country and could not possibly cope with such large numbers of refugees. And indeed whatever the political hue of the government of the day, the arena of discourse, reflection and policy pronouncements has not shifted in four decades. Its single-minded resolve is to return the Rohingya. Over the years, the government has managed to rope in UNHCR into doing its bidding by categorising Rohingya as “economic migrants” and hence, all importantly, not asylum seekers. And so it follows that the needs and vulnerabilities of those in the camps is not of concern. They need only be returned.
July 2017 – Sheikh Hasina on repatriation. .
Surely all this stands as one of the signal under-achievements in the annals of refugee history to have been unable to force an awareness of the shortcomings of this approach? Local integration and settlement is anathema to repatriation. This is easy to understand. But what is not understandable is how Sheikh Hasina in July of 2017 can still see repatriation as an objective when all the evidence points to the fact that the root of these cyclical influxes into Bangladesh is the denial of citizenship to Rohingya in Myanmar, and the pernicious persecution they face? Let’s partially list these shall we: murder, rape, physical torture, forced relocation, herding into camps, land and property confiscation, compulsory labour, limitations on access to education, employment, and public services, restrictions on marriage, limitation on the practise of religion, the destruction of mosques et cetera.
In the meantime, generations of stateless children are growing up in poverty, without opportunities, without any possibility of social mobility and in conditions my images on this page fail to adequately convey. You need to visit the place really to get a proper feel. And when you see and hear the children play, their voices of course have the same pitch and key and tone of children anywhere else on the planet, and with their screams they are telling you that they are there and that they have hope despite their maladies and malnutrition.
Freud makes a distinction between mourning and melancholia. From what I remember of my reading, mourning is when one accepts the loss and one moves on. In melancholia, one does not accept the loss. The loss becomes incorporated into one’s being and so one continually remembers it. Walking around in Kutupalong, one feels melancholia because the Bangladesh government won’t have it any other way.