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‘Everywhere they go, the Rohingya are exploited’


Kaamil Ahmed, a British journalist, has been covering the Rohingya crisis for eight years.

He is currently a reporter for The Guardian and has made multiple trips to Bangladesh, where an overwhelming majority of Rohingya live in exile, to investigate and document the livelihoods of a people considered one of the world’s most persecuted people. lay.

Stateless by Myanmar in 1982, the decades-long plight of the Rohingya came to the world’s attention in 2012, when deadly violence against the group erupted in the Southeast Asian country’s Rakhine state, sparking a mass exodus.

The largest Rohingya exodus occurred five years later, when the Myanmar army killed more than 6,000 people and forced some 700,000 into Bangladesh.

According to witnesses and rights groups, the army burned and razed dozens of Rohingya villages and shot indiscriminately, killing women and children – events that accused the government of Myanmar of committing genocide.

Ahmed’s book, I Feel No Peace: Rohingya Fleeing Over Seas and Rivers, is an in-depth exploration of the Rohingya in exile, their exploitation, their quest for justice and the apparent failure of world bodies such as the United Nations to protect them.

Kaamil Ahmed, second from left, pictured in Bangladesh on a reporting trip (Courtesy of Kaamil Ahmed)

Al Jazeera: Most people in the world first encountered the Rohingya in 2012, when deadly violence broke out in Rakhine. What attracted you to the crisis?

Kaami Ahmed: It was just before 2012 when I first encountered the Rohingya, I had never heard of them.

I’ve seen an interview. The language was a bit unusual. It is similar to Bengali but there were some differences. It was very interesting that these people you had never heard of existed. I was intrigued and wanted to understand who they were. I started paying more attention to it, reading as much about it as I could.

Al Jazeera: Your book covers the origins of the Rohingya, the decades of violence against them and the legislation passed over the years by the state of Myanmar – such as the 1982 law that makes them stateless. It also covers their refugee journey. What do you hope readers connect with?

Ahmed: The books that have been published about the Rohingya often focus on Myanmar – and I didn’t want to make this about the Rohingya in Myanmar.

I wanted to make it about the Rohingya as refugees because there’s an important story to tell about what’s still happening to them outside Myanmar…what happened in those (past) decades led to where they are today. They were returned twice, in 1978 and in the 1990s…when hundreds of thousands went to Bangladesh in majority.

They were returned to relative calm, but not to peace or safety. International agencies and all the people who worked and decided all these things about when they were going to return… were like “OK, it’s kind of quiet now.” None of the underlying issues have been resolved. The laws and restrictions, and the whole kind of police state they lived under, was never mentioned.

Rohingya children carry firewood (courtesy of Kaamil Ahmed)
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in 2017 after Myanmar’s government crackdown on their native state (Courtesy of Kaamil Ahmed)

There is also always the question: who are they and where do they come from. Myanmar says they are invaders brought by the British.

That argument is based on the assumption that boundaries are fixed and that people are historically tied to certain places. History tells us that the borders between Bengal and Arakan (Rakhine State) have shifted, as have the people on either side of those borders. Populations on either side have cultural influences from so many places.

Al Jazeera: When you first met a Rohingya man, Nobi (not his real name), in 2015 in a refugee camp in Bangladesh, you describe him as “nervous”, especially around security guards. How could you then build a relationship with the community?

Ahmed: With time. I have been many times (to refugee camps) and spent a few weeks there. I didn’t go talk to them and disappeared when my story was done. I kept coming back. I kept talking to them. Even between 2015 and 2017, when I had no chance to go back, I spoke to Nobi through Facebook. Listening is like the most important thing. It’s not the writing… the part you put out. It is the time we give for the input.

They told me more basic things in the beginning… the general kind of how they live. However, when they realized I was coming back and spending time and willing to keep talking to them, they kept telling me more. They came to me when they had something to say.

Al Jazeera: Non-Rohingya authorities do not really feature in the book. Was that intentional or did they largely refuse to speak?

Ahmed: The point of the book was that this should be about their (Rohingya) voices, what they say and what they go through. Not really what the officials want to say. I’ve talked to them, I know what they say.

Al Jazeera: The plight of Rohingya women has been documented over the years. Do you think they are more vulnerable?

Ahmed: I think so. There are many women who are single for various reasons. One of the most obvious is that their husbands were murdered in Myanmar and so they arrived themselves (in Bangladesh and elsewhere).

They only take care of their children. And when they take care of their children, it is very difficult for them to do any kind of work – because there really isn’t much work that they are allowed or able to do.

And if there is work, it is labor work that men prefer. So they are vulnerable because they don’t have much income, and they can’t leave their children because there is no one else.

Rohingya camps
The Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Bangladesh, where most of the Rohingya refugees live (courtesy of Kaamil Ahmed)

In almost every refugee camp or place of extreme poverty, much of the social glue is breaking down. People get desperate.

Intermediary brokers are very active and there are many ways they operate. One way is they will say “We can take you to Thailand or Malaysia”.

The other one is, “Why don’t you come and work for a Bangladeshi family, as a housekeeper?” But then you get there, you don’t get paid and you get stuck.

In 2018, a Rohingya man approached me in the camps, he said his family had fled Myanmar before him and while they were in the camps, his wife, who was struggling to make ends meet on her own, was convinced by a human trafficker to get her daughter to work for a Bangladeshi family. They were told it would only last a few months, but the girl was not allowed to return and her family was unable to visit.

Al Jazeera: You are quite critical of the Bangladeshi government and its policies towards the Rohingya. Others would say that the poverty-stricken country is overburdened.

Ahmed: If Bangladeshi policy is harsh and restrictive, it should eventually be reported.

I also think that Bangladesh is sometimes criticized without receiving support. There is a tiny bit of charity here and there, but no substantial support. It’s in a difficult position and it’s… it’s getting less help. As budgets shrink, it gets less help with bigger demands – a growing population, people having children, being asked to teach.

When the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh came to London, I interviewed him and he made it clear: everyone wants us to provide an education program (to the Rohingya), but no one is giving us the money for it.

It’s a big strain on resources and it gets nothing. And this is the point in the book… the lack of international aid, the lack of a real solution.

Rohingya children play in refugee camp
A published United Nations investigation found that Myanmar’s military had acted with ‘genocidal intent’ in 2017 (Courtesy of Kaamil Ahmed)

Al Jazeera: Are Global Organizations Guilty?

Ahmed: This is something that is true in many places. The UN … will often bow to pressure from governments … to do the real basics. They have to accept whatever a government does, not really push back, because they just need the government to allow them to be there.

(But) the role of the UN is not just to provide food and shelter – they must protect people from unsafe repatriation.

The fact that in the nineties their own report suggested that they played a role in sending people back by force, that is an issue that needs to be addressed.

Al Jazeera: What is the main conclusion of your book?

Ahmed: What happened to the Rohingya didn’t happen in a month or two. It didn’t stop or start carnage. It happened over decades.

It is a people who have been completely marginalized and excluded. And it continues abroad. Once they are refugees, it doesn’t stop.

Everywhere they go, they are exploited – by people, drug gangs, traffickers and governments. There is no resettlement for them, there is no citizenship. So they are just completely stuck, completely stateless.

You can almost map it, wherever they go, there’s someone, some criminal element on the way, exploiting them. It’s ongoing violence.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.


Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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