Rohingya Refugee Voices: “I want freedom and rights”  

Marzhan is a Rohingya mother who has lived in Kutupalong expansion site in Bangladesh since 2017.

Marzhan watches her youngest son, Jorin, playing in the dust with a battered toy car, under their shelter constructed of navy plastic sheets and bamboo poles. 37-year-old Marzhan is one of the 706,000 Rohingya refugees forcibly displaced from Rakhine State in Northern Myanmar within the last year.[1] In August 2017, the “clearance operations” of the Myanmar military caused Marzhan and her family to flee Myanmar.

For over a year now, Marzhan and her family have lived in a shelter in the expansion area of Kutupalong refugee camp – one of several sprawling, makeshift settlements in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh – a common situation for many Rohingya refugees since the two official refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar have reached maximum capacity. With complicated political arrangements regarding the Rohingya’s rightful home still far from taking place, it seems likely that Marzhan and the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees will remain in these camps for the distant future.

Behind her, an array of tightly-packed informal settlements sprawls up the hill, bamboo poles and varying shades of tarpaulin scattered across the hillside. Several children walk past, some carrying plastic cans of water, others a smaller sibling in their arms. A major challenge for Marzhan is raising her children in the camp environment. One of the hardest things about living in Bangladesh is not always being able to provide food or water for her family (Basic Physiological Needs required to survive),[2] a familiar situation for many Rohingya and their families.

In Myanmar, Marzhan and her family had a home, lands, and possessions. She had sufficient income for herself and her family. When the Myanmar military waged their brutal campaign, Marzhan had to abandon everything she knew and flee with her family nearly 90 kilometres away. Now, she fears that the military have destroyed all homes and land in her village, leaving her future back in Myanmar uncertain as ever.

“I had many properties in Myanmar. If the Myanmar government will return my properties and freedom, then I agree to go back to Myanmar.”

Currently, Marzhan is unemployed and spends most of her time performing domestic duties and taking care of her five children. She hopes to find work as a cleaner. When Marzhan speaks of the struggles of living in the camp with children, her face conveys the stress of daily life as a refugee living here, anxious about the lack of education or future job prospects for her children.

“[My children] are not getting education in Bangladesh. My elder son is 18 years old. He has finished Class ten in Myanmar. Now he is jobless. He is interested to work.”

With overcrowding and poor sanitation facilities (many houses are located too close – less than 6 metres – to a latrine,[3] and often five times the UN-recommended amount of 20 people sharing each latrine),[4] illness and disease spread rapidly, causing a multitude of physical health problems. Mental health is often overlooked in the camps despite many refugees suffering from poor psychological health due to their past experiences. Marzhan personally suffers from psychological trauma; a result of the horrific events she witnessed and endured when the Myanmar military attacked their village.

While their lives are no longer at risk, the camp offers no long-term solutions for Marzhan’s family and those living in these camps. Without adequate housing, education, job prospects and sanitation, their futures look bleak. 

Despite many physical and practical challenges, Marzhan believes there is a strong sense of community in the camp, and generally feels safe. Yet she has no desire to stay in Bangladesh permanently, and wishes to return home to Myanmar. Marzhan expresses her hope for repatriation in the next two years. However, she admits the information she has received regarding the repatriation process has been unclear and unsatisfactory, and she doesn’t have access to news of the current situation in Rakhine State.

Yet the prospect of returning to Myanmar fills many with fear as they remember the nightmare situation they left behind last year. Despite scrutiny from the global community, the crimes committed by Myanmar’s military still go unpunished. Many Rohingya are fearful of returning home as they hear news of killings, arrests, rape, and genocide are still occurring.

When asked what she wants from Myanmar’s leaders, Marzhan responds:

“I want freedom and rights.”

The Rohingya are not willing to return home unless the Myanmar government fulfills certain demands, including guarantee of safety, equal rights and recognition of their citizenship.

Disclaimer: All names of persons in the Migrant Voices series have been replaced with pseudonyms to preserve the migrants’ anonymity. Story based on Xchange’s Rohingya Repatriation Survey.

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[1] ISCG, (2018). Situation Report Rohingya Refugee Crisis Cox’s Bazar (covering 17th-30th July) (2 August 2018) p. 1

[2] Maslow, A. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), pp.370-396.

[3] REUTERS GRAPHICS, (2017). The Rohingya Crisis: Life in the Camps.

[4] REUTERS GRAPHICS, (2017). The Rohingya Crisis: Life in the Camps. (Based on Reuters’ statistics for the neighbouring Balukhali makeshift settlement)