In 2017, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees fled Myanmar due to violence, continuing a trend of displacement that began in the early 1990s. The most recent exodus began in August 2017, when violence in Rakhine State forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee and seek refuge in neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency UNHCR, many of the refugees reaching neighbouring countries are women, children and the elderly, groups that require aid and protection.
Rohingya refugees come from an ethnic Muslim group that has lived in Myanmar, a Southeast Asian nation whose majority of people are Buddhist. The Rohingya are distinct from the other 135 ethnic groups in the country, and since the early 1980s have been stateless as they have been denied citizenship in Myanmar. Most of the Rohingya live in the western state of Rakhine, one of the poorest in the country. Due to persecution and violence, many have fled over the decades by land or boat.
Most of the those who migrated to Bangladesh settled in refugee camps set up in the country’s Cox’s Bazar district. The large influx of refugees put a strain on the host community’s services and facilities, with spontaneous settlements being put up overnight. With this migration came legitimate concerns over the lack of adequate water, shelter, sanitation and protection for the women and girls. For its part, the Bangladesh government was generous in its response to the crisis, sparing no effort to provide for the needs of the refugees.
The plight of the Rohingya is one that captured a lot of attention from international media initially, but interest began to wane, leading to efforts to raise awareness on how to continue humanitarian aid. Media campaigns have also been created around this issue, with BRAC, the world’s largest non-governmental organisation (NGO), running a campaign in 2019 to help raise awareness and funds for the crisis. It was a print advertising campaign that was spearheaded by Ajab Samrai, a chief creative officer with over 30 years of experience in the advertising industry.
BRAC’s work in Coz’s Bazar has been ongoing for more than three decades and has targeted the Rohingya influx and host communities. For the organisation, the interventions involved ensuring health and child protection measures were implemented, and as the crisis went on, the NGO continued to help the host communities and refugees build long-term resilience. BRAC’s humanitarian programme assists more than 500,000 people.
Before August 2017, the Rohingya were estimated to number one million, accounting for a third of Myanmar’s population. Their origins can be traced as far back as the 15th century, and over the 19th and early 20th centuries many moved to Rakhine, which at the time was under British colonial rule. Upon independence in 1948, the administration in Myanmar refused to recognise the Rohingya, even considering them illegal immigrants from neighbouring countries.
Despite this, the Rohingya were able to find a place in the newly-independent country, with some even taking roles in high office and parliament. This quickly changed after a military coup in 1962, when the government refused to recognise them even in the giving of national identification cards in 1974 (they were only allowed to register for foreign registration cards).
A new citizenship law was passed in 1982 that rendered the Rohingya a stateless population. Under the law, three levels of citizenship were established. For a Rohingya to access the most basic level, a few conditions had to be met, including proof that an individual’s family lived in the country before independence, and of fluency in one of Myanmar’s national languages. Many Rohingya couldn’t meet the first requirement as they lacked such documentation
The new law has also imposed various restrictions on the Rohingya’s rights to work, study, marry, travel, access health services and practice their religion. Voting is out of the question, and even passing the citizenship test means identifying as ‘naturalised’ citizens rather than actual Rohingya.