"They started beating with him a stick. My brother died on the spot. We could not retrieve a body. The military burned down my house." (Arnold)
Despite its appearance, this quote reflects more than one account of the Rohingya refugee crisis. It demonstrates the decades-long, brutal repression that continues to shape the reality of countless Rohingya. Persecution by Myanmar’s militaristic regime and chauvinist citizens has led to the displacement of over 1.7 million Rohingya refugees into camps in neighboring Bangladesh (OCHA). Thousands more have been forcibly relocated into camps throughout South Asia. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these issues in the long-term.
To say Rohingya camps were merely "poor" before the pandemic is wildly inaccurate. They lacked privacy and secure shelter, offered a scarce variety of foods (Hussam, 10:15), and unjustly denied basic human rights. And yet, as drastic as these issues were, they have been magnified a thousand fold as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Where there was formerly a lack of privacy, there is now invasive overcrowding. Where there was formerly a lack of comfort, there is now acute destitution. And most importantly, where there were formerly three meals a day, there is now a struggle for two.
Studies from the GAGE program report that inadequate food intake affects two out of three Rohingya households, and 40% of Rohingya adolescents are in need of food in comparison to 20% of Burmese adolescents. This is especially significant because malnutrition during such a key era has been shown to have long-term effects on not only growth and development, but also physical and mental health.
So, what can we do to help?
In a speech given this year, Harvard professor Reshmaan Hussam asked Rohingya women the same question. After much prodding, each woman timidly asked for two items: fish and vegetables (Hussam, 9:50). It almost seems ironic that these refugees have endured brutal persecution, have had their homes taken away from them, and have literally escaped death –– but their only request is for fish and vegetables. Not a house, and not money, but fish and vegetables. An ordinary request for such extraordinary circumstances.
Their request for a suitable meal highlights a fundamental unit missing from recent global efforts—humanity. In their quest to provide relief, global efforts have overlooked the basic right to decent food, depriving the Rohingya of natural human dignity. After all, isn't it a basic human right to eat food with taste?
Providing nutritious food for consumption is necessary for the survival of the Rohingya. However, doing so alone provides only a transitory solution. It is crucial for global efforts to also provide the means by which refugees can live purposeful lives. Simply put, Rohingya adolescents also need food for thought. Education is critical for “young Rohingya to one day voluntarily return…to Myanmar with the safety…they deserve'' (UNICEF). In Jordan, where many refugees fleeing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict currently reside, education has recently been embraced as a means for self-sufficiency. One method for increasing self-reliance includes The Resilient Youth, Socially and Economically Empowered Project, a Jordinian educational initiative that has enabled almost 25,000 refugees to achieve economic independence and stable livelihoods through employment (Mercy Corps). Rohingya refugees could perform similarly if given these opportunities. Self-reliance, gained through education, may be the key to the establishment of a lasting Rohingya community built on human dignity.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, global efforts are doing what they can. However, “what they can” is not enough. The fact of the matter remains that the Rohingya are a forgotten people, chained by Myanmar but kept there by the rest of the world. In order for true change to occur, there must be a paradigm shift in public opinion for the Rohingya Refugee crisis, as there was for crises like the Russo-Ukrainian War. Ultimately, it is up to the media––from news channels to social media posts to online essay competitions––to make change a reality.