Kamrul Islam works for the Christian Blind Mission in the camps for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. This Protestant organization focuses on disabilities, particularly eye problems. Kamrul is one of the leaders of the working group for the protection of people with disabilities, in which other NGOs also take part. “We estimate that more than 10 percent of people in the camps have disabilities,” he explains. “For many of them, the cause is the repression unleashed by the Burmese army,” he says.
“In addition to medical assistance, in the past we have also organized social support to teach the deaf sign language and find employment for everyone. We have often managed to reintegrate them into agriculture.” But it is not always easy to help them, because of their reluctance: “Disability is often experienced by the Rohingya as a stigma, as a shame; sometimes they consider it a punishment from God. We always try to explain to them that there is nothing to be ashamed of.”
Kamrul can tell us a lot about life in the Rohingya camps. First of all, he explains that there may be many more Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh than the official figures indicate. According to the UNHCR, a little over 866,000 Rohingya are currently in Bengali camps. “Outside these centers, there are many people living in shacks. The total number could therefore rise to 1.2 million people, according to counts made by journalists. I think this estimate could be correct. After all, the Bangladesh administration has great problems identifying its own citizens, let alone the Rohingya.” Before the great wave of refugees in 2017, there were only two camps available; now there are as many as 34, including extensions, all in the Cox’s Bazar area.
According to Kamrul, Dhaka is doing its utmost to assist the refugees. “The government, together with the WHO, is providing general medical assistance. Thanks to the UN, food is being properly distributed. Schooling is provided by UNICEF and various NGOs; often the refugees themselves are qualified to teach. But lessons have been at a standstill since last March, when the COVID emergency began.”
The virus has not broken out too violently in the camps, thanks also to the containment measures taken. At the time of writing, only 387 Rohingya refugees have contracted it since April 2020; among them, ten have died and 46 are currently positive. “But we have to be very careful,” Kamrul explains. “If the virus were to strike with greater force, it would be a disaster, the death toll would rise dramatically.”
However, there are other problems that the Rohingya unfortunately have to live with in the camps. One of them is the fires: “I personally witnessed two of them, one of which destroyed a medical center.” Worse still is the traffic in yaba, a derivative of methamphetamine: “The pills arrive from Myanmar in Coca-Cola bottles. There have been several police operations in the camps to stop the spread of yaba, but I believe that the trafficking activities are still ongoing.”
Kamrul has obviously had the opportunity to meet many refugees and hear their stories. Some of their stories have stuck in his memory. “In the town of Teknaf, in south-eastern Bangladesh, I met a family of 16 Rohingya, consisting of a couple, the husband’s mother and 13 children. They lived on the other side of the Naf river that divides Myanmar and Bangladesh. One morning, they saw that helicopters had started to spray gunpowder on the houses and fire rockets at a village near theirs. They managed to escape to another village, planning their escape to Bangladesh for the next day. They arrived at the river after a 12-hour walk through the hills. Unfortunately, the military found them on the way and killed one of their sons, while another was injured.
A girl gave birth to a baby boy but lost her life shortly afterwards. The survivors paid 50,000 taka, the equivalent of $590, to cross the river. We found them in a tent with no money left to eat, so we helped them.”