Visiting the world’s largest refugee settlement, UNHCR’s Special Envoy heard testimonies from Rohingya refugees and called for expanded access to education for Rohingya children.
By Christopher Reardon in Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh
UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie heard testimonies this week from Rohingya refugees who have endured years of persecution and discrimination in Myanmar and survived a desperate flight across the border.
Speaking in Kutupalong refugee camp on Tuesday, Jolie said, “I am thankful that here in Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees have their existence recognized, and are being provided by the Government and UNHCR with documentation and proof of their identity – in some instances for the very first time in their lives.”
The visit marked Jolie’s 64th mission with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, since 2001, and her first mission to Bangladesh. She met with displaced Rohingya people in Myanmar in 2015 and in India in 2006. Decades of injustice have driven nearly 1 million Rohingya to flee their homes in Myanmar and seek refuge in Bangladesh – the majority of them in the last 18 months.
On Tuesday at a transit centre close to the border, Jolie met with Jorina, a young woman who had arrived with friends, one of them heavily pregnant, a few weeks earlier. Just 18 years old, Jorina spoke of a staggering series of misfortunes. As a Rohingya, she was born stateless. Two subsequent tragedies – the death of her mother many years ago, and the killing of her father in December – made her an orphan. Now she is a refugee, too.
“I lost my parents. What else could I do?” she said. “I couldn’t sleep any single night safely… Finally, I decided to flee.”
Jorina also had some good news to share. Less than 24 hours earlier she found her older sister, who had come to Bangladesh several months ago. What’s more, she helped her friend Nurkayda give birth to a healthy girl at a nearby hospital.
“We never would get access to this kind of services and care in Myanmar,” Jorina said. “What we suffered, we cannot allow our children to go through the same situation.”
Later in the day, Jolie met with Rohingya children at a two-storey bamboo learning centre among the densely populated hills of Kutupalong refugee camp. Since the latest influx, which began in August 2017, its population has soared to over 620,000 people, more than any other camp in the world. Most of the children in attendance had never set foot in a classroom before coming to Bangladesh. Back home, their parents told Jolie, education is out of reach for most Rohingya, often banned, taxed or discouraged with physical threats.
Most of the children in attendance had never set foot in a classroom before coming to Bangladesh.
Even this space, an informal learning centre built on two levels to make efficient use of the camp’s limited space, does not offer the kind of education they need: a structured curriculum leading to recognized qualifications that let children shape their own futures, and, when conditions allow, rebuild their communities in Myanmar. UNHCR is working to expand access to education and improve the quality of teaching and learning materials within the camp.
Jolie started her visit on Monday, spending the afternoon in Chakmarkul, a considerably smaller camp hosting around 12,000 refugees. At a community centre there, she spent time with a group of refugee women who had survived sexual or gender-based violence, including mass rape.
“When we are together, we talk about our pain,” one of the women said. “We share our thoughts and try to console each other, take care of each other. But at night the pain comes back, and we are terrified. It’s a great pain that always haunts us.”
“At night the pain comes back, and we are terrified. It’s a great pain that always haunts us.”
Psychosocial support can go a long way in helping survivors, but the violence these women endured is not their only source of distress. Their lack of citizenship is also a source of trauma.
Asked about returning to Myanmar, one woman told Jolie, “You would have to shoot me where I stand before I go back without my rights.”
Rohingya refugees set to work building terraces on a hillside in Chakmarkul camp to prevent landslides and protect the road and shelters below from flooding. © UNHCR/Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo
As camp life goes on behind her, Minara, a young Rohingya from Myanmar, pauses in the late afternoon sunlight at Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh. © UNHCR/Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo
Rohingya youth play a game of football in a clearing at Chakmarkul refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. © UNHCR/Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo
Making her way up one of Chakmarkul’s many steep hills, Jolie also sat down with Hosne, a young widow with two small boys. Hosne started going to school in Myanmar at the age of seven, but she left after a month due to repeated threats of rape on her way to and from class.
“When I was in my mother’s womb – that was the last time I was at peace,” said Hosne, 23. “I don’t know what wrong we’ve done to deserve this.”
She added: “I didn’t have any experience that I felt I’m a citizen or had freedom. All the time, we only suffered discrimination; they treated us like cattle. If I had a chicken, I had to pay tax. If we wanted education, you have to pay tax. We are not allowed to move from one place to another.”
“Even from our grandfather’s time persecution was going on.”
Jolie also stopped to meet with eight young siblings, aged 3 to 22, grieving the death of their father, who suffered a fatal stroke only three days earlier. Their mother, they said, had been jailed in Myanmar more than a year ago and hasn’t been heard from since.
“Without parents it is really hard for me to support my siblings, because I am still young myself,” said the eldest, Mujibur, who is now the man of the house. He and his wife already had their hands full raising their own baby girl in exile, but now they are caring for a family of 10.
Even so, he added, for the time being they are better off here than back home, where conditions have been arduous. “We cannot move freely. We cannot pray together. We cannot meet in groups of more than three or four people together. We are not allowed access to education. If we do any of these things, we are taken to confinement. Even from our grandfather’s time persecution was going on.”
In Kutupalong, Jolie visited a joint Government of Bangladesh and UNHCR registration centre where Rohingya refugees are issued biometric identity cards. For people who are stateless, it is the strongest recognition of their identity they have ever known: a document that calls them by their name, spells out their right to stay safely in Bangladesh, enhances their protection and assistance, and affirms their right to return voluntarily home when conditions are right.
Addressing Rohingya refugees in the camp, Special Envoy Jolie said, “I want to say I am humbled and proud to stand with you today. You have every right to live in security, to be free to practice your religion and to coexist with people of other faiths and ethnicities. You have every right not to be stateless, and the way you have been treated shames us all.”
Originally published by UNHCR on 7 February 2019