Rohingya girl in a red dress against rubble

Another conflict, more innocent lives blighted

As thousands of Ukraine’s children flee violence, Suresh reflects on the five-year Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh.

3 March, 2022

It is shocking and sad to see the conflict in Ukraine, with families separated and innocent women and children becoming refugees. Watching footage of them crossing the border into neighbouring countries, my mind goes to the tragedy we saw and experienced with the Rohingya communities in Myanmar and the ongoing refugee crisis in Bangladesh.

This August it will be five years since the horrific massacre that the Rohingya community experienced. Many of the children were witnesses to the events that day including seeing their mothers raped, fathers murdered, their houses burnt to the ground and livelihoods destroyed. The massive exodus that resulted was unprecedented in many respects. The refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh are some of the largest in the world with more than a million Rohingya refugees. Over half of them are children.

Rohingya refugees entering Bangladesh
Rohingya refugees entering Bangladesh in 2017.           Credit:  VOA

World Vision was supporting these disenfranchised communities in Rakhine state in Myanmar just prior to their displacement. I was in Myanmar at the time and it was horrific to see and hear of the violence that was perpetrated against the Rohingya. It was magnanimous of Bangladesh, in spite of its many challenges, to have received the refugees and housed them with no idea of if or when they might return.

As always children bear the brunt of such displacements. The trauma they experienced is unimaginable. So I was particularly pleased when World Vision – a child-focused agency - mobilised to support the refugees as they streamed across the border to Bangladesh.

Children look over the refugee camp in Bangladesh
Boys look over the Cox's Bazaar refugee camp 

Given I am now located in Bangladesh, I have seen World Vision’s refugee response first hand. Since those extremely challenging early days, the work of the humanitarian community with the support of the Government of Bangladesh has made a world of difference to the lives of the refugees. World Vision’s priority since the influx was to meet the most urgent needs of the refugees such as shelter, food, water, sanitation and keep the children safe and protected. This included providing psychosocial support to help them heal from the trauma that they had all experienced. This will be an urgent need in the case of the refugees from Ukraine as well given the children leave behind their fathers to an uncertain and traumatic future.

When I talk to the children and communities here in Bangladesh it is clear that, in spite of challenges, they feel safer and more secure in the camps. Yet, they long to return to their homeland and have access to a proper education, but they tell me that they will only go if they can be assured of their safety in Myanmar. 

Rohingya children at play
Rohingya children feel safe in the refugee camp, but want to go home

Five years on, the situation in Myanmar still remains precarious for the Rohingya. There has been no accountability for the perpetrators, the plight of the Rohingya communities has been forgotten and nothing meaningful has changed to create an environment for the return of the refugees. These men, women and children in Bangladesh are stuck; they have no future here. They have no idea of when they could ever return to their homeland and live in safety with dignity.

World Vision will, of course, continue to support these communities on both sides of the border as best we can and give them some semblance of hope in the midst of their hopelessness. It is great to also see World Vision mobilising to support the refugees streaming across the border from Ukraine. Their work there will be vital in the days and months to come.

Whatever the future holds for the Rohingya and the people of Ukraine, we should never let the world forget the plight of refugees – especially the children.

Learn more about World Vision's work in Bangladesh here and our Ukraine Emergency response here 

Suresh Bartlett is the National Director of World Vision Bangladesh. Previous to working in Bangladesh, he was National Director in Myanmar for almost six years and before that National Director in Sri Lanka for seven years. Each of these roles were in fragile contexts where World Vision supports internally-displaced people and refugees in the midst of conflict.