Rohingya refugees Bangladesh
Rohingya refugees search for valuable materials, such as gold, in the ashes after a massive fire broke out and destroyed thousands of shelters in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh last year (File) Image Credit: Reuters

If you want to evoke a stark, honest-to-goodness image in your mind of what the Martinican psychiatrist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon called “the wretched of the earth” in his iconic book, Les Damnes de la Terre (1961), then string two words together: Rohingya refugees.

Come again, you say, Roh, what who?

Yes, we’ve forgotten about these folks — and that, I say, is unconscionable.

It was in late August, almost exactly five years ago, when these people’s unspeakable suffering, which followed their expulsion from the one homeland they had inhabited for generations in the Rakhine region of Myanmar, came to the attention of the world. Though that suffering has continued unabated ever since — indeed become more irremediable — it appears to have passed by the world largely unnoticed. Unconscionable indeed.

These folks’ tragedy — for tragedy it is — began in the last week of August 2017, when the Myanmar military mounted a campaign which they called, with a straight face, “clearance operations” but which the UN called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

The campaign ended up in the killing of 8,300 civilians and the expulsion from their homes of 700,000 others, with most of the latter seeking refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh, where they were joined by 300,000 fellow-Rohingyas who had been victims of earlier ethnic cleansing operations.

Exclusion, hardship and destitution

These refugees face exclusion, hardship and destitution in the cluster of refugee camps they live in, essentially cramped, makeshift settlements of tents and shacks, surrounded by wire fencing. These settlements are located mostly around the coastal city of Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh close to the Myanmar border.

The city, named in honour of Hiram Cox, an officer of the British East India Company, was the location where a large bazaar was built in the 1840s.

Beyond the exclusion, hardship and destitution the refugees endure daily, there’s the ever-present danger of deadly fires breaking out, which have become commonplace there. In March last year, there was what the international media went on to call Cox’s Bazar Blaze, where refugees were caught up in a huge blaze that ripped their camp, killing dozens and displacing 45,000.

As things stand, Rohingya refugees are today caught between the rock and the hard place.

Bangladesh, whose prime minster, Sheikha Hassina, again last week told the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that ways must be found for the refugees in her country to be sent home.

Rugged terrain, fierce climate and high tidal waves

Already 28,000 refugees — out of a projected 100,000 — have been relocated to the remote island of Bhassan Char in the Bay of Bengal, around 40 miles off the mainland, an island known for its rugged terrain, fierce climate, devastating cyclones and high tidal waves. (It is all reminiscent, I say, of Devil’s island, or Ile de Diable, the penal colony in French Guiana, whose agonies were brought vividly to life in the 1973 historical epic film, Papillon.)

The UN has called the project “logistically challenging” while Human Rights Watch, which employs strictly blunt language, has called it a “humanitarian disaster in the making”.

But no one really seems to care what has befallen, or what in the future will befall, these folks. Five years after Myanmar gave them its boot and the world its back, Rohingya refugees have not been able to elicit anyone’s serious concern over their plight.

What is of import here is what we can do for someone like Mariam.

Mariam Khatum, a 40-year-old single mother, told a Guardian reporter in the wake of the panic and despair of the Cox’s Bazar Blaze in March last year: “We’ve lost everything in Myanmar and we came here to Bangladesh to start over. (During the conflagration) I just grabbed my son and fled the fire. I didn’t have the time to fetch anything else. I don’t know what we will do now. I’ve lost everything again.”.

Those of us, who have so much, have failed people like Mariam, who have so little. And that, I say yet again, is unconscionable.

— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.