Six Years of Rohingya Exodus: Food Crisis & Concerns for a Lost Generation

by Ella

Dhaka, Bangladesh – The haunting memories of a perilous journey undertaken by Mohammad Jalil in October of last year across the Bay of Bengal remain vivid in his mind. Jalil, a 26-year-old Rohingya refugee hailing from Bangladesh’s Kutupalong camp, invested approximately $1,500 with a promise of a secure passage to Malaysia from an agent.

However, a month later, he found himself aboard a ramshackle fishing trawler, adrift in the turbulent sea for nearly a week, surrounded by the distressing cries of hungry children and the agony of his fellow passengers. Battling starvation, they were subjected to harsh treatment by the trawler’s crew. On the ninth or tenth day, the vessel eventually succumbed to the waves, sinking beneath the surface. Jalil recollected the ordeal to Al Jazeera, recounting how he, along with a few others, swam for their lives before being rescued by the Bangladeshi coastguard.


Amidst his harrowing experience, Jalil’s survival stands as a fortunate anomaly. According to the United Nations, 2022 marked one of the deadliest years for Rohingya refugees at sea, as close to 400 individuals lost their lives during treacherous voyages across the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal from Myanmar and Bangladesh.


Jalil’s story reflects the dire circumstances faced by nearly one million Rohingya, a majority of whom fled Myanmar on August 25, 2017, following a brutal military campaign described by the UN as having “genocidal intent” against the predominantly Muslim minority. In the wake of violence that witnessed the massacre of Rohingya men, the violation of women, and the incineration of their villages, over 750,000 sought refuge in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district, now home to the world’s largest refugee encampment.


In the years since, August 25 has been commemorated by refugees as “Genocide Day,” a solemn occasion marked by demands for justice and the safe and voluntary repatriation to their homeland, Myanmar, currently undergoing a genocide trial at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.


The hazardous sea expeditions toward Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia underscore the precarious existence of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Cut off from the possibility of returning to their military-controlled homeland and largely abandoned by the international community, they navigate an uncertain existence.

For Jalil, who arrived in Bangladesh in 2017 with aspirations of forging a new life, the past six years have instead confined him within the confines of the refugee camp, devoid of employment prospects and barred from venturing beyond the encampment’s confines.

Journalist Kaamil Ahmed’s interactions with hundreds of such refugees for his book, “I Feel No Peace,” revealed a pervasive sense of hopelessness regarding their safe return to Myanmar. Ahmed conveyed to Al Jazeera that the refugees grapple with a profound sense of statelessness and marginalization wherever they find themselves.

In December 2021, Bangladesh took the decision to close refugee-operated schools that had been providing Rohingya children with Myanmar’s curriculum up to the tenth grade. Consequently, students like those taught by Nur Kabir, who managed one of the largest of these schools, were left with unoccupied days, raising concerns about their future prospects.

Shamsud Douza, the Additional Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commissioner, acknowledged to Al Jazeera that the Rohingya-run schools taught in the Bangla language, which is prohibited by the Bangladeshi government to prevent integration and permanent residency. Douza expressed a desire for the refugees’ safe repatriation while acknowledging the dim prospects of such endeavors in the near term.

While the Rohingya refugees struggle with their circumstances, tensions have escalated within the host community. A 2019 UNDP survey revealed that two-thirds of Cox’s Bazar residents felt the impact of the Rohingya influx on their own well-being.

The hostility has deepened over time. Saikat Rafi, an NGO worker stationed in Cox’s Bazar, observed that the local community’s resentment has grown as they perceive the Rohingya to be recipients of foreign aid, potentially depriving them of job opportunities. Claims have surfaced that Rohingya labor, offered at lower wages, has undercut the job market for locals.

Cut off from formal employment and confined to the camps, Rohingya refugees depend heavily on food assistance. However, a funding shortage led to a one-third reduction in assistance from the World Food Programme, endangering the health of over half a million children, as noted by Save the Children.

The charity stated that even before these cuts, a significant proportion of Rohingya families were struggling to access adequate nutrition, contributing to widespread malnutrition, particularly among children.

As the humanitarian situation reaches a breaking point, the plight of the Rohingya children stands as a dire concern. Save the Children emphasized the potential transformation of this generation into a “lost generation,” bearing the brunt of circumstances beyond their control.

However, Bangladesh contends that the burden of hosting the refugees is straining its economy. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina conveyed that the cost of maintaining the camps exceeds $1.2 billion annually, with only 48 percent of the pledged $881 million in UN assistance having been fulfilled.

The reduction in funding is poised to directly impact essential services, according to Regina de la Portilla, UNHCR spokesperson in Bangladesh.

As the years have rolled on, the Human Rights Watch, in a recent statement, emphasized the absence of conducive conditions for the safe and dignified return of Rohingya to Myanmar. The group criticized the UN Security Council’s inaction and government aid cutbacks, asserting that the Rohingya find themselves in increasingly desperate circumstances.

Human Rights Watch’s Shayna Bauchner warned against precipitous repatriation, as such action might consign refugees back to the control of an oppressive junta, inviting further tragedy.

The scenario has led Dr. Delwar Hossain of Dhaka University to note that the world’s attention has shifted away from the Rohingya, possibly relegating them to a “permanent fixture within the Bangladeshi territory.” The escalation of violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state has, in his view, escalated tensions between Buddhism and Islam, potentially undermining the historically peaceful coexistence of these faiths in Southeast Asia.

He warned of a widening chasm that could unsettle the region’s social stability if left unaddressed.

The tale of the Rohingya exodus, spanning six years, is one marred by perilous journeys, unmet promises, and uncertain futures. As the international community grapples with its response, the plight of these refugees serves as a haunting reminder of the complexities inherent in providing refuge and justice in a world fraught with challenges.



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