It took me three flights, a two hour car journey in a UN vehicle, a work visa and a government approval before I was able to enter. The day before my visit, UN HQ in New York put a blanket ban on all foreigners entering due to a heightened security risk. So, when I was finally able to visit, I felt incredibly privileged to be there and to gain an insight into what’s going on.
The butterfly effect: My visit to a Rohingya refugee camp
I would like to share my experience of my field visit to a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh. I’d like to show how it is not some distant event on TV but that by looking at the past, present and future of the crisis, we can see parallels to issues we face at home.
I visited the camp as part of a field visit, through my role as an auditor for United Nations. My background is in international relations and I have a post graduate degree from LSE in this area, and am a Chartered Accountant with ten years audit experience.
I’ve managed our UN work in South Asia for some years, and have south Asian heritage myself, so was keen to go out and see what was happening on the ground.
I’ve audited hundreds of projects in over 60 countries but I wanted to share my experience of my last trip, as it encapsulates many of the issues which we are struggling to come to terms with globally, as well as at home.
There are 1.1 million people living in the camps. For context, that is triple the size of the population of Iceland. There are also 18,000 babies born each month.
During my visit, I could see miles and miles of shacks where the Rohingya people live. I was auditing ‘women friendly centres’ and a women’s hospital. There were services offered including counselling, skills training, midwifery referrals and other essential services for women who have suffered Gender Based Violence.
The Rohingya women were understandably weary of outsiders – many have experienced rape and witnessed the murder of their relatives. The experience left me feeling powerless, like I can and should do more, and that if I stay silent, I am somehow tacitly complicit. At the same time I felt proud, proud of the contribution that the UN is making, which is funded by us, the taxpayer.
I accept that anecdotes of far flung events seem meaningless to us, so I don’t want to talk of the ‘smells’ of the camps or how very basic they were to look at. I’m sure you can all imagine the difficulties refugees face, so I don’t want to focus on the negative. Instead, I would like to outline the past, present and future of the conflict and frame it in a way that links back to everyday issues we all face, in order to try and prevent this type of atrocity from happening again:
The Past – Interventionism and colonialism
The Rohingya people come from the Rakhine state in Myanmar. During British rule, Arakan, as the area was then known, was a battle ground for the fight for independence. After independence was won, identity struggles formed as different groups inhabited the newly formed Rakhine state. This culminated in the riots in Rakhine in 2012 where we see clear evidence of ethnic conflict in the region.
The crisis peaked from 2016 to 2018 when hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas were forced to leave their homes amidst claims that their government had committed genocide against its own people.
How is this relevant to us now?
During colonial times arbitrary borders were been drawn by foreign powers and this has been linked to ethnic conflict. We can acknowledge the roots of some of our international conflicts, such as those between Israel and Palestine over the Gaza strip, and India and Pakistan where fighting is ongoing over Kashmir.
Of course, this is in our past, and I’m not saying that any of us should be held personally responsible for the actions of the British Empire, but we may be responsible if we do not speak out against the resurgence of a nostalgic and rose tinted view of the past. A view which fails to acknowledge what really happened and the mistakes made. The rise of the ‘alt-right’ in the UK and USA also fuels islamophobia, and this is the same type of sentiment which led to the Rohingyas being forced from their homes.
If you think this can’t happen here, we just need to remind ourselves of the recent attacks on mosques in the UK and overseas.
Present – economic insecurity and under-representation
Myanmar had a communist economy up until 2012, the same year as the Rakhine state riots. This was also the year that US sanctions were lifted and the country started to allow in foreign direct investment.
How is this relevant to us now?
A shift in economic system often has a social and political impact. In the U.K., we’ve seen a shift toward economic globalisation since the 1980s.
This is not a comment on the advantages or disadvantages of an economic system, but how we should acknowledge the social and democratic impact of such changes to ensure that they benefit the whole of a society. The structural changes in our economy, have left behind industrial and mining communities in the Midlands and North of England; and led to increasing regional inequality as well as democratic deficit.
As much as I support internationalism, I acknowledge that it can lead to the erosion of identities and create ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. If democracies do not adapt to make sure that all groups are adequately represented, division is inevitable.
Future – Internationalism and new global challenges
The Government of Bangladesh has stated that the Rohingyas are not able to stay in the camps permanently. They have articulated plans to move the refugees to an island off the coast of country. There is no agreed long term plan, so long as it is not safe for Rohingyas to return to Myanmar.
How is this relevant to us now?
We only need to look at the now disbanded Calais refugee camps to see that we could be faced with a growing number of refugees in the future. Moving refugees to an island is not a wise decision when Bangladeshi islands are low lying and face rising sea levels and more extreme weather. Further, as these climate trends continue, countries such as the UK can expect much higher numbers of refugees.
I hope I have shown you that the Rohingya refugee crisis touches upon issues which closer to home than we may have thought; and the actions we take may have a ‘butterfly effect’ and impact on other parts of the world.
I urge you to take 3 actions:
1. Let’s be truly informed
We are flooded with misinformation which distorts issues, dehumanises the ‘other’ and takes issues out of context. Let’s choose our news sources wisely and also take the time to read up on our history.
2. Let’s be an ‘Open’ society
We should support international institutions. The major problems we now face are all international and can only be solved internationally. If we work together with other countries, we have the power the help end genocide, as we saw with the positive interventions in Rwanda and Kosovo in the 1990s.
3. Let’s become actively involved in the democratic process
Vote. Whether it’s the local, national or EU elections – make sure your voice is heard. Where we feel excluded from conventional politics, find other ways to get involved. Last week we saw Extinction Rebellion take direct action, showing us that there’s more to democracy than parliamentary politics. Further, we shouldn’t take democracy for granted.
I would like to end by saying thanks for being respectful listeners (readers), as fundamentally listening to and respecting the views of others will always be the most important part of any democracy.
Louisa Metcalfe is a member of the Labour Campaign for International Development