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One human rights lawyer has been working on the ground in Bangladesh supporting the safety, dignity and rights of Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar. She tells her story about working with “the most persecuted people on earth”.

In Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, known in tourism circles for having the longest beach in the world, there’s a flurry of activity. More than 670,000 persecuted Rohingya have crossed over from Myanmar since the early days of atrocities in August 2017, the fastest en masse human movement since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. In the burgeoning camps it is virtually impossible to find an entire family intact, a family without any member having experienced physical or sexual violence, or having witnessed unspeakable crimes described by the United Nations as “textbook ethnic cleansing”.

Yet despite coming into one of the poorest parts of Bangladesh and greatly outnumbering the host population, there are few overt signs of tension. It is difficult to comprehend the situation unless you’re there.

I was on the ground for three months in 2017 as the emergency unfolded, and am now back to provide a few months support with the monsoon and cyclone season approaching in May. I advise the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) on ways to ensure food assistance operations are conducted in a safe and dignified manner for beneficiaries, ensuring no groups are discriminated against or overlooked. WFP is the largest responder, providing food and nutrition assistance to the whole refugee population plus some vulnerable members of the host community.

The figures say it all: 685,000 people receiving rice, lentils and oil; 165,000 people having access to shops through an eftpos-type assistance card; 25,000 people receiving nutritional biscuits (new arrivals, and children in child-friendly spaces); special nutritional food for 34,000 pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and 123,000 children under five years of age.

For the host communities there are also ongoing development programs such as school feeding, nutrition, and an enhanced food security and nutrition targeting vulnerable women. Each of these programs, plus the massive procurement and logistics operation, has opportunities to serve and protect affected people, and risks which need to be identified and addressed.

Often I advise on actions which can promote safety, dignity, inclusion and equality, including ensuring people know their rights and how to complain if there is a problem. Having said that, many people don’t complain even when there is a problem. Sadly, this is perhaps borne from their being accustomed to unfair treatment or exclusion

The Rohingya, most of whom are Muslim, have been described in many speeches and articles as “the most persecuted people on earth”. They are a stateless people who have faced decades of human rights violations, including discriminatory local orders, confiscation of land, control of movement, forced labour, forced displacement, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, torture, summary executions, and systematic sexual violence at the hands of the military, Rakhine Buddhists and others. It is this suffering that breeds incredible resilience, as well as innovative and strategic ways to maximise the assistance received for their families.

For Bangladesh, a country with a population of 163 million on a land mass about twice the size of Tasmania, making space for hundreds of thousands more people is not easy.

Despite not being a signatory to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees 1951 and its 1967 Protocol, the government has allocated 121 hectares of land, including precious forest, to accommodate the Rohingya. It is truly amazing how those with the most compassion are those who have themselves suffered. Life is not easy for the local Bangladeshi people and yet they recall the suffering of their own people during the 1971 Bangladesh genocide and they know that, just as they were given refuge, so, too, must they give refuge to those whose lives depend on it. Day by day, the forest is stripped to make way for shelters, and the massive need for firewood is vastly outstripping supply.

Because of women’s fears for their own safety and that of adolescent girls, and men’s belief that they will be harassed more by the local community, it is boys and younger girls who spend hours each day searching for firewood, carrying large bundles on their heads through a sea of plastic and makeshift bamboo shelters. A child goes out and does not return – lost, kidnapped, trafficked – it is often unclear.

Image collection
From top: Lawyer Michelle Sanson visiting newer areas of the Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh; children collecting firewood for their families; a young girl collects water from a hole dug for latrines in Kutupalong camp; for refugees life is even harder for older people and those with disabilities.

A human rights crisis

It’s in situations such as these where the fundamental tenets of human rights law can grate against reality. The rights remain; there is no doubt about that, but there are highly complex dynamics that determine who enjoys what.

For example, it’s not easy for newborn Rohingya to enjoy the right to birth registration in the middle of a sprawling camp, or the right to acquire a nationality in circumstances where both parents have been denied this and where their host government’s immense generosity does not extend to citizenship, as it is hoped the displacement will be short lived.

It’s not easy to enjoy the right to enter into marriage during adulthood and with free and full consent when parents are already accustomed to seeing it as their decision and, in the refugee camp, the groom’s parents want someone to cook and clean for them, and the bride’s parents want one less responsibility, one less mouth to feed. Worse still are cases where marriage is used as a form of “justice” for a girl who has been sexually assaulted, requiring the perpetrator to marry her.

It’s not easy for the host community children to enjoy their right to education when their schools are accommodating some of the most vulnerable displaced Rohingya, or for some of the Rohingya children whose only access to a learning-like environment are rapidly established “child-friendly spaces”. How can you focus on education when what you really need, based on the significant trauma you have suffered, is psychosocial support?

When so many people have seen people they know raped and murdered, burned alive, drowned, hacked to death with machetes, and when the sheer need vastly outstrips the capacity of service providers, how do you achieve a right to health?


  • After Myanmar’s independence from the British in 1948, the Union Citizenship Act was passed, defining which ethnicities could gain citizenship. The Rohingya were not included. 
  • The Act, however, did allow those whose families had lived in Myanmar for at least two generations to apply for identity cards. Rohingya were initially given such identification or even citizenship under the generational provision. During this time, several Rohingya also served in parliament. 
  • After a 1962 military coup, things changed. All citizens were required to obtain national registration cards. The Rohingya were only given foreign identity cards, which limited their jobs and educational opportunities.
  • In 1982, a new citizenship law was passed, effectively rendering the Rohingya stateless. Under the law, Rohingya were not recognised as one of the country’s
    135 ethnic groups. 
  • The law established three levels of citizenship. To obtain the most basic level (naturalised citizenship), proof that the person’s family lived in Myanmar before 1948 was needed, as well as fluency in one of the national languages. Many Rohingya lack such paperwork because it was either unavailable or denied to them.
  • As a result, their right to study, work, travel, marry, practise their religion, and access health services have been and continue to be restricted. 
First published on Aljazeera:

With the immense strain on water and natural resources, and the greatly heightened risks of disease outbreaks (already the World Health Organization has reported 6,132 cases of suspected diphtheria, with 38 deaths), how can one even speak of rights and freedoms without sounding like a walking textbook? And with monsoon and cyclone season just around the corner, for the 597,700 people residing in the world’s largest refugee camp in Kutupalong, in makeshift shelters made from bamboo and plastic, the loss of life and reduced enjoyment of basic rights to shelter, sanitation, health and clean drinking water is not a concerning prediction, it is a known fact and efforts are towards ameliorating in some way the risks of flooding and landslides.

Collecting firewood
Lawyer Michelle Sanson, above right, with childen in Bangladesh collecting firewood and a girl cutting out the core of a plant for food as her family had run out of lentils to eat with their rice. Photograph by Saikat Mojumder from the World Food Programme.

A record number of refugees

It’s true that the human cost of hosting the influx is being felt on both refugee and host communities. An emergency assessment shows levels of acute malnutrition well over the emergency thresholds of the World Health Organization, at 24.3 per cent global acute malnutrition and 7.5 per cent severe acute malnutrition. This does not even touch upon other topics, including the environment or the elephants – a glorious endangered species whose forest home has progressively shrunk.

Eleaid Trustees, a British non-profit organisation working for the conservation and welfare of the Asian elephant, reports that Bangladesh’s elephant population is “possibly the most threatened in Asia”. On the one side, these gentle giants have lost habitat to the refugee camp, and on the other side they have to contend with landmines along the Myanmar border.

In the initial weeks of displacement, some unsuspecting Rohingya set up their flimsy shelters on less dense ground, which turned out to be elephant tracks and, despite surviving the Myanmar army and a river crossing, were crushed as they slept. Since then, a human tide has swept away the elephant’s habitat. Suffice to say, life is not easy for the refugee or host populations and they are doing an incredible job of making ends meet.

We are one human family and we share obligations towards one another arising from our shared humanity. Notions of sovereignty and territory bring with them a sense – for those with the good fortune to have been born or accepted into a place with a strong economy and system of law and order – that one is entitled to enjoy a prosperous life. Instead of recognising this unearned opportunity, we hear opinions about “those people over there” being lazy and dependent, countries near them should take them, it’s not our problem. Sadly, the relative absence of suffering leads to a relative absence
of compassion.

How can we transfer a real sense of the suffering of the Rohingya into the lives of those who are blessed without suffering, to herald them through to a new way of thinking about the world and about human rights?

Certainly it cannot be achieved in university halls, and yet, on the other hand there are many who jump to judge the “white saviour” complex of those who rush out and try to help, taking “selfies of suffering” to post on Facebook and Instagram alongside trite motivational quotations. Do those who suffer have the right not to be made a pawn in the social media persona of others? Do they have a right to dignity in their suffering? Or is it necessary to expose them to this further indignity on top of their persecution, displacement and ongoing suffering in order that the lucky people can live their way to a new way of thinking?

The right to life

Back in Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar, the sun is setting, the humanitarians are departing for the day, the struggle to be in the right line to get the right parcel of assistance is paused. A sense of calm descends. As men and boys use the last of the light to play a quick ball game, women and adolescent girls prepare for nightfall’s reprieve from four black plastic walls, when they can emerge from their shelters to sneak somewhere to wash or defecate, collect water and resume purdah (the social seclusion of women) before first light.

The nights can be difficult for those without a solar torch; they can be risky with unlockable shelters and latrines, particularly for the 14 per cent of households which are headed by females, and the 4 per cent which are headed by children. The nights can also bring back into focus the traumatic experiences from a night not too long back when they awoke to an attack and fled for their lives. Their rights remain the same as ours and everyone else’s, but their opportunity to enjoy them is slight. That is the rhetoric and the reality of rights, particularly in times of crisis and displacement.

Fortunately, the right that matters most for the Rohingya – the right to life – is being protected by the humble compassion of the poor people of Bangladesh and the generosity of donations for humanitarian assistance.