On World Refugee Day this year, it was very sobering to know that according to the UN there are 68.5 million displaced people in different parts of the world which is three million higher than last year and 50 percent higher than 10 years ago. On World Refugee Day this year I was remembering my experiences of 1971 with the Bangladeshi refugees in India but I was also looking at the TV news with the appalling accounts of how refugees fleeing violence in their own countries were being inhumanely treated by USA authorities on the Mexico-US border. I had a feeling both of depression, hopelessness and helplessness. Man’s inhumanity to man!
When I was interviewed last year by bdnews24.com, I spoke about a recurring nightmare of 1971 which I experienced in 2016. For about a month in June that year, I would wake up every night, sometimes screaming, and in my nightmare I would always be standing in a very muddy and flooded refugee camp in Bongaon, West Bengal with a dead Bangladeshi baby in my arms. At the time, in 2016, I sought psychiatric help and after a short holiday away from Dhaka, I was no longer affected by the recurring nightmare which was a great relief.
However, in 2017, seeing the tragic live news footage on TV channels every day coming from the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, my nightmares returned. The lines of thousands of refugees that were coming from Myanmar to Bangladesh were very reminiscent of the scenes experienced by me 47 years ago. The only differences between 1971 and now is that all the news in 2017 and 2018 is ‘live’ and in colour while in 1971 news took time to move from place to place, country to country and was, mostly, in black and white only.
In June 1971 I visited 18 refugee camps in the Bongaon area which were under floodwater and now in 2018 the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar district are suffering in this same way as a result of torrential monsoon rain. What I wrote in September 1971, published in Oxfam’s document “The Testimony of Sixty” about the refugees from Bangladesh pouring across the Benapol/Bongaon border crossing, I could be writing today in Cox’s Bazar:
“There are no walls to keep the rain from blowing in, nor any partitions except lines of washing to separate one family from the next. The thatched roof seems to sweat smoke, but just as the smoke drifts out the rain comes in at every pore, and the mud floor which is their bed gets wet and slimy.
Regularly each hut disgorges a hundred refugees or more who form queues for their government rations, queues for the wells, queues for a place at the trench latrines. Those with dysentery seldom make it to the queue. The children form lines for their daily dollop of special nutritious food.
This is the totality of life for nine million refugees-there is no work, there is no money. They knew what they were coming to. They knew, that despite everything, it was better than what they were leaving, for here there is a chance of physical survival.
We shall go on trying to help them survive here. Please do not give up at your end. But above all, please push, press and persuade everyone with influence until the refugees are safe again. Get them out of these monstrous camps.”
(Julian Francis, September, 1971)
In 1971, we heard from the refugees about genocide, about villages being razed to the ground by the Pakistani Army and their collaborators. We saw people with bullet wounds and wounds caused by bayonet and knife stabbings. Nothing, it seems has changed from 1971 to 2018 except, perhaps, the reported brutality that has occurred in Myanmar is worse than 1971.
I am gratified to know that the International Criminal Court (ICC) is seized with atrocities committed by the Myanmar authorities and I sincerely hope that justice will be done. Unfortunately the ICC was not established until 2002 and so the war crimes committed by the Pakistani authorities in 1971 have never been dealt with in a proper and legal way.
Many people do not realise that the problems being faced by the Rohingyas of Rakhine Province of Myanmar go back many years. Twenty years ago when I worked with the International Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) I had the responsibility of the oversight of the work being undertaken by the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society (BDRCS) at Kutapulong and Nayapara in Cox’s Bazar district. It is significant that we worked closely then with UNHCR and Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) and they are still at the forefront of the work today.
Some of us can still dream of the world becoming more compassionate towards refugees but with the increasing trend of nationalism spreading in many parts of the world, that dream seems to be more and more elusive.