The downward spiral of vulnerability in Rohingya camps

by Yasmin Khan | University of Toronto
Friday, 30 March 2018 17:47 GMT

A Rohingya refugee poses in her snack shop in the Balukhali refugee camp in southeastern Bangladesh in February 2018. Credit: Yasmin Khan

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Gaps in protections increase the vulnerability of women with limited mobility and economic means

Last May, on my first day visiting the Rohingya refugee camps, I witnessed my Rohingya guide attempt to retrieve a child who had been kidnapped by a man who had hired her to clean his house.

"She is 12-years-old. He is 50. We know where she is, her family wants her back," he spoke into one cell phone. He translated the answer he received to another phone. A few minutes later, he hung up both phones, sighing.

"The man took her as his second wife. We know where she is but we can’t go get her," he said. "He is Bangladeshi and we are Rohingya." He had been talking to his contact at the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the agency in charge of the approximately 200,000 "unofficial" Rohingya refugees and new arrivals living in makeshift camps last May, 2017. On the other phone, he had been talking to the father of the girl who had been kidnapped. He could elicit no help from the IOM, the police, or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to retrieve the girl. As new arrivals from Myanmar, the family did not fall under the protective authority of any agency. The girl fell into a bureaucratic gap between agencies, a perilous position created by lack of coordination between agencies and governments, a dynamic that still affects thousands of Rohingya. The arrival of more than 50 local and international aid agencies called in to help with the 700,000 Rohingya who flooded over the Myanmar-Bangladesh border starting August 25, 2017 has not eliminated these gaps in protections.

Gaps in protections increase the vulnerability of women with limited mobility and economic means. Women are not inherently vulnerable, they have survived years of violence, suppression, and environmental catastrophes in both Myanmar and Bangladesh. With access to basic resources, such as stable livelihoods and reliable health care, women are resilient. Female refugee populations’ vulnerability is created by state-centered relationships among governments and agencies, relationships that often leave the needs of women and girls last.

Along with Bangladeshi women and girls, Rohingya women and girls have been sold into sex trafficking around Cox’s Bazar for years, a forced "livelihood" that many women and girls endure to feed their families. But the multiple levels of vulnerability don't stop at trafficked women and girls. The massive August influx includes 30,000 to 60,000 pregnant Rohingya women (numbers that vary depending on what agency you ask), many of whom are due to give birth in the middle of a historically deadly monsoon season which begins in April.

Pregnant refugee women are in a uniquely precarious situation because they have limited access to medical care since the Bangladeshi government has forbidden aid agencies to work in camps after 5 pm, leaving women to deal with high-risk births on their own during the night. Experienced Rohingya midwives have been attending home births, but the overcrowded camp environment with its poor sanitation facilities, low-lying regions prone to floods and mudslides, and lack of mobility in case of an emergency, put mothers and babies at risk. Within this pregnant population, there is another set of women and girls who are in an even more precarious state: those who became pregnant as a result of the brutal systemic rape campaigns by the Myanmar military in August. Agencies say they are concerned for newborns conceived through military rape who will look physically different from the population around them. These babies will be born to mothers suffering from severe trauma and won’t have biological connections to males within the camp, further restricting the economic options of both mom and baby. 

The  environmental risks inherent to living in coastal Bangladesh, combined with being stateless, pregnant, trafficked, economically repressed, and speaking a language distinct to the host community and aid workers highlights the multiple levels of vulnerabilities Rohingya women and girls face in refugee camps. These vulnerabilities are created through the lack of communication, trust and common goal of protection that divides the host government, humanitarian aid agencies, and the people they are charged with protecting.

As for the 12-year-old girl who was kidnapped last May - divided from her family by an invisible yet powerful barrier of rightlessness - she still has not been returned to her family as of March 2018.

Yasmin Khan is a doctoral candidate in human geography and women and gender studies at the University of Toronto.