Photo/Illutration This Rohingya woman cannot erase the pain and shame of having worked as a prostitute at a refugee camp in Bangladesh. (Ryuta Sometaya)

COX'S BAZAR, Bangladesh--The Bangladeshi government picked Aug. 22 as the day it would begin accepting applications for Rohingya living in refugee camps who wanted to return to their native Myanmar, but no one showed up.

The move by the two countries to resolve the humanitarian crisis is just the latest in a string of actions that demonstrate how little is being done for the 700,000 or so members of the Muslim Rohingya minority who fled Myanmar after the government there drove them out two years ago.

Driven by frustration and anxiety about their uncertain future, some refugees started to dabble in drug trafficking or prostitution to provide food for their families.

When no Rohingya refugees showed up for the Aug. 22 start of the repatriation program, Abul Khalam, a Bangladeshi government official in charge, told reporters, “Today's result is disappointing, but we will discuss the matter with the Myanmar government to cooperate in returning the refugees.”

One reason for the lack of takers was the fact that the two governments only announced the repatriation program a week earlier.

The refugees had nothing but criticism over the hasty announcement. Some complained that the program was unclear about whether they would obtain citizenship if they returned and others voiced fears for their safety if they return to Myanmar.


About 60 percent of the refugees, or about 400,000, are children. The prolonged stay in the refugee camps makes their education a major issue.

A learning center operated at one of the camps by the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations teaches 40 or so children how to count in English. They sit on the dirt floor because there are no desks or chairs.

Two hours are set aside each day for lessons. The teacher is a Rohingya woman who a year earlier was a student at the same learning center. The class is made up of children as young as 5 or 6, along with a 15-year-old boy. There are no classes for children over the age of 15, meaning that around 25,000 children in the camps receive no education at all.

Seventeen-year-old Ful Kahn said: "I want to study but there is no classroom or educational materials. I spend many days doing nothing."

The lack of educational support is partially due to Bangladeshi government policy. One source said the government did not want to implement any programs that could encourage the refugees to remain in Bangladesh. For that reason, the government has banned the teaching of the Bengali language to the Rohingya refugees.

Instructions have been handed down that only the Myanmar and English languages are tolerated.

Local residents fear the refugees, if they remain, will take away their livelihoods, so they are keen for them to return to Myanmar as soon as possible. The 700,000 or so refugees are housed in a region that had a population of about 400,000.

"Children who do not receive a proper education are more likely to become victims of human trafficking and child marriage," said Areez Rahman, who works in the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). "Among all the refugee camps in the world, none has seen all the refugees leave within 10 years. While it is important to repatriate refugees as soon as possible, the time has come to provide medium- and long-term support."


A primary reason for the delay in repatriation is the lack of preparations by the nations involved.

The Myanmar government asserts that preparations to accept the refugees have been completed. But it has refused to agree to a UNHCR suggestion that the refugees be allowed to temporarily return to see for themselves where they would end up living.

One concern held by the government is that the strong resistance shown by radical Buddhists in Rakhine state in western Myanmar where the Rohingya are scheduled to return will lead to trouble among those temporarily returning and make a permanent repatriation all but impossible.

But refugees say they have no intention of returning if they have no idea whether it will be safe or not for them to do so.

And while the Bangladeshi government clearly wants to promote repatriation, it has dragged its heels in preparing for such a move.

According to diplomatic sources, the Bangladeshi government decided on the Aug. 22 start of repatriation without consulting with the Myanmar government. The two governments only started preparing for the repatriation from about Aug. 19.

Refugees who were told immediately before the start that they were subject to repatriation said they needed more time to mentally prepare for the return.

Ambia Perveen, a member of the European Rohingya Council, said, "Repatriation is being pushed at the convenience of the governments and the feelings of the refugees are being ignored."


Some Rohingya refugees have already returned to Myanmar by sidestepping the formal procedures established by the two governments.

An Asahi Shimbun reporter accompanied Ichiro Maruyama, the Japanese ambassador to Myanmar, when he visited some of those refugees to ask them about their experiences.

Many of the refugees said Rohingya militants had exerted pressure on the refugees to not return to Myanmar.

The Myanmar government had asked the Japanese government to carry out the interviews to gain an insight into the mind-set of the returning refugees.

According to the Myanmar government, about 250 refugees returned of their own accord by the end of August.

One of those, a 40-year-old man, said he was threatened while in the refugee camp and told, "I will kill you if you return home."

The man said the threat came from a member of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) that attacked a police unit in Rakhine state in August 2017.

ARSA members who live in refugee camps are believed to be in close contact with members back in Myanmar.

The man said he wanted to return to Myanmar because there were no jobs or money in the refugee camp. Last year, he and five family members crossed the border on foot with little in the way of belongings. They now live with a relative in northern Rakhine state.

"ARSA is trying to prolong the refugee issue in order to continue to be the focus of global attention so it can maintain its voice in various matters," the man said. "My elderly parents still live in the camp so I feel they are like hostages."

Another 43-year-old man returned in October 2018 with two other family members. He said he was happy to be home even though he does not yet have a job and worries about putting food on the table for his family.

"There are many in the refugee camp who want to return home, but are afraid of saying anything because they feel ARSA is watching," the man said.


Among the 700,000 or so Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh over the two-year period are some who have made desperate choices to survive.

One 50-year-old man, barely visible in the darkness of a shelter, said in a hoarse voice: "I have no hope. Now, I feel as though I am only waiting to die."

He and six family members fled to the refugee camp in September 2017 after their village was burned to the ground. The man said he was quickly approached by another Rohingya man at the camp who said, "How about trying drugs?"

The man, a fisherman by trade, had no problems making ends meet when he lived in Myanmar. But at the refugee camp, the family only received rice and bean rations.

He wanted to buy candy for his children as a treat but could not do so without money, so he took up the man's offer of drugs.

He went to a shelter in the camp as instructed and received a bag containing a kilogram of powdered marijuana in a room so dark he could not make out the face of the seller. A deal was made and 7,000 Bangladeshi taka (about 8,800 yen, or $82) changed hands.

The man paid out all the cash he had brought from Myanmar as payment. He followed instructions and divided the contents of the bag into 400 small paper packets. He was introduced to "clients" who paid 50 taka for each packet.

Buyers showed up on a daily basis and he sold his entire stash in a week. He was left with 20,000 taka. He returned home after buying candy at a shop outside the camp and was met by his smiling children.

The man kept up the business, telling himself it would only be for a short time more. Then he began smoking his product. He felt he was living better than his neighbors because he was able to buy meat and fish. But he also heard a rumor that police had fatally shot two drug dealers over the past year.

He has little hope of being able to return to his former existence even if he is repatriated.

"I want my children to lead a better life, but I have become fatigued over my own," he said.


Another 40-year-old man sold not just marijuana but a stimulant known locally as "yaba."

While the marijuana sells for 40 taka a packet, one yaba pill goes for 400 taka. Even if he has to pay part of his proceeds to his boss in the camp, he still ends up making 3,000 taka a day. Forty percent of his customers are refugees living in the camp and the rest are local Bangladeshis.

The man lost his parents to illness when he lived in Myanmar.

"I have to look after my three younger sisters," he said. "I have to save money for their marriages."

He said the real reason he didn't want to stop selling drugs was that he wanted to feel alive.

"It is very trying living every day with nothing to do," he said. "Even if it is illegal, earning a living itself is an important thing."

When his grandfather, who lives with him at the shelter, learned of his drug dealings he beat him mercilessly with a stick and admonished him by saying, "Don't live in a manner that is shameful as a human."

The man said: "I now feel like I want to stop. I do not want to continue while making my grandfather unhappy."


A 23-year-old Rohingya woman who arrived at the refugee camp in September 2017 with her 9-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son was at her wit's end because she did not know how to go about obtaining food rations distributed by international organizations. Her husband left the shelter and never returned, saying, "I cannot stand this kind of life."

That was when an elderly woman living nearby raised the prospect of prostitution.

"You need food for your children, don't you? Come to this location tomorrow night," the crone told her.

The elderly woman provided a nearby shelter as the meeting point.

When the young refugee went to the shelter, a stranger turned up who did not give his name and paid her 300 taka to have sex.

After that, she went to the same shelter two or three times a week. Her son slept in the same shelter because he would not stop crying if she was away from him.

The woman finally obtained food from the international organization about four to five months after arriving at the camp. But she still needs cash to buy clothes for her children and other items. She was finally able to stop selling her body for money at the start of this year, having put some funds by.

But she still weeps when she recalls that experience, saying, "I cannot get the crying of my son out of my head."

She also had to move to different shelters several times after rumors spread that she worked as a prostitute. She is finally managing to carve out a more stable life at the shelter where she currently resides.

"But my regret over what I did will never disappear," she said. "I become very sad when I think that I will be a soiled human until the day I die."

There were already about 200,000 Rohingya refugees at the camp before the mass exodus that began from August 2017. With more than 900,000 refugees now in the camp, it also contains shops, educational and medical facilities.

A 34-year-old reporter for a Bangladeshi media organization said, "It is like a city right now. Crimes that are never reported occur frequently."

(This article was written by Takeshi Narabe and Ryuta Sometaya.)