In 2017, a brutal military campaign displaced more than 700,000 Rohingya from Myanmar and killed thousands more, with security forces systematically targeting communities with arson, rape and mass executions. The latest wave of violence, however, has been preceded by decades of discrimination and the uprooting of many Rohingya to Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand and elsewhere – including a group of around 300 resettled refugees in the British city of Bradford. Now they are leading community efforts to alleviate the humanitarian crisis confronting the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya trapped in camps on the Bangladeshi border.
‘My family left Myanmar in 1996 because my uncle, grandma and grandpa had been shot by the Burmese military’, says Salah Uddin, a Rohingya former refugee from Myanmar, who is now settled in Bradford, UK. ‘My father was really scared so he decided to flee to Bangladesh. My mum was pregnant with me at the time. Now I can’t even imagine how the difficult the journey was. My father died of a heart attack one day after arriving in the refugee camp.’

Ten years later, Rohingya in Myanmar are still facing persecution and violence, forcing them to leave their homes for refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh. As stateless persons, living without a nationality and all the protections this affords, Rohingya communities are still caught in a limbo. Conditions in the camp are extremely challenging and overcrowded, and diseases spread easily and go untreated.  When Uddin was living there in 2008, the camp was home to around 32,000 refugees. This has now grown to more than 700,000.

‘The camp in Bangladesh was like a prison’, recalls Uddin, who lived there for 14 years. ‘We were not allowed to go outside the camp. We didn’t have any shelter, medicines, clothes or food.’

Uddin and his family were subsequently brought to the UK in 2010 under the Gateway Protection Programme, a scheme run by the UK Home Office and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The UK government calls this a ‘legal route’ for up to 750 refugees to settle in the country each year. Now some 300 Rohingya who were given refugee protection under the scheme live in Bradford, a city in the north of England.

‘When we came to the UK we didn’t know anything. We couldn’t speak any English. I went to secondary school and I used to sit at the back of the class and felt like I couldn’t participate. But, in this country, we know we can have a future. We have freedom.’

Uddin now has British citizenship and works for the British Rohingya Community (BRC), an organization campaigning for Rohingya rights. Particularly in the wake of the recent crisis, BRC also collects and distributes aid to the camp in Bangladesh. Uddin recently visited the camp to deliver food and medicines donated to the organization, and was shocked to see how conditions there had deteriorated. During his 20-day visit, he witnessed the deaths of 10 people, including children.

 

While Bradford’s Rohingya community have mobilized in support, they have been deeply affected by the trauma their family and friends have lived through. ‘Despite the fact we are living in the UK,’ says Uddin, ‘my community cannot be happy. Our sisters and our brothers are still suffering in the camp and the persecution continues. My cousin was raped and killed in 2017 when she was fleeing with my mum’s family to Bangladesh.’

Bradford’s Rohingya population illustrates what can happen when refugees are supported to build a secure future and when efforts are made to ensure they can feel part of their new community. The local Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities welcomed the Rohingya refugees, and helped them settle into their new home. In particular, there are strong links between the Rohingya and Bangladeshi communities, partly due to shared religion and language. Uddin recalls how members of the Bangladeshi community visited his home, helped his mother to understand and write letters, deal with bills and learn English. Bradford City Council also supported efforts to build links between diverse communities.

‘We’re making so many contributions to this country,’ Uddin says. ‘Rohingya people are going to university and we’re working here – these are great opportunities. In Bangladesh, we didn’t have any education or future. But now we can have a future, we can become doctors, engineers or things like that. In the camp we didn’t have any life – after coming here it’s like a different world. It’s safe here. You can feel safe.’

BRC is working with the UK Home Office to reunite families still trapped in the camps by bringing them to the UK. However, Uddin believes the main solution would be for Rohingya to be repatriated to Myanmar and granted full citizenship rights in their homeland. But for this to happen, measures must be put in place to ensure their safe return – a situation that will require a commitment from the authorities to guarantee their protection. But with the Myanmar government still refusing to recognize Rohingya as citizens, let alone the scale of the atrocities carried out by the military and its own complicity in these attacks, there is little sign that this will happen imminently. In the meantime the BRC, like many other Rohingya diaspora groups worldwide, will continue to offer their support.

Jasmin Qureshi

Header photo: Members of the British Rohingya Community hold event to raise awareness of the plight of stateless Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. British Rohingya Community. Credit: BRC.