Decades of persecution of the Rohingya community in Myanmar have culminated in large waves of forced displacement, and a total of nearly one million now live as refugees in the camps of Cox’s Bazar across the Bangladesh border. Many others have sought refuge in Malaysia and other countries across the region. Widespread irregular migration has reshaped Rohingya society, with a vast number of families splintered across multiple borders. Although international justice mechanisms are engaged, a durable political remedy for the crisis is not yet visible on the horizon.  Nearly all Rohingya refugees living in the camps of Cox’s Bazar District, Bangladesh, depend on humanitarian services for survival. 

Maps of the survey area: Kutupalong mega-camp, Cox’s Bazar District

© Google 2020Map data: SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, GEBCO. Map images: Maxar Technologies. US Dept of State Geographer

Maps of the survey area: Kutupalong mega-camp, Cox’s Bazar DistrictMaps of the survey area: Kutupalong mega-camp, Cox’s Bazar District

Geographic scope

The mega-camp is adjacent to several host community villages, and its easternmost edge sits less than two kilometers from the border that separates Bangladesh from northern Rakhine State in Myanmar. The border comprises land, river, and maritime sections, including the full length of the Naf River and an area of the Bay of Bengal into which the river flows.

Rohingya using temporary border passes once frequently crossed the river to legally enter Bangladesh for medical, business, and religious purposes. For many, these services were more readily accessible than those in Rakhine State. But the border pass system has now been suspended, and the river is less frequently crossed. While both legal and informal trade continue, fewer boats can be seen nowadays. The empty waters of the Naf are a reminder of the fragility that has come to define this frontier separating South and Southeast Asia.

Most Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh hail from either Maungdaw or Buthidaung Township in Northern Rakhine State. Much of the Maungdaw Township population dwells in villages along or near the riverbanks and coastline that mark the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.

Until the 2017 exodus, roughly 30 percent of the Rakhine State population was Rohingya. The Rohingya population is more concentrated in the northern part of the state, and 93 percent of the Maungdaw Township population was Rohingya, according to the Myanmar government’s 2016 estimate. Buthidaung Township lies further inland to the east. It is more mountainous and less populous than Maungdaw. Rohingya comprised 84 percent of the Buthidaung population until 2017, and this township is described as more ethnically diverse than Maungdaw.

Today, conditions in their native Rakhine State have remained unstable, as Rohingya continue to face systematic denial of basic rights and violent conflict rages between the Myanmar Army and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine insurgent group. The Rohingya face significant barriers to repatriation due to the denial and revocation of their citizenship by Myanmar. Combined with the ongoing security crisis, Rohingya’s lack of political rights means that large-scale repatriation is unlikely in the near term. 

Seeking mobility to flee violence and persecution has been predominantly a life-saving necessity, but sometimes it is also an attempt to secure better long-term prospects and security. But the prospect of transnational mobility gives rise to a tapestry of risks: people sometimes suffer sexual violence, starve to death, or drown during boat journeys. A young jobseeker may be caught illegally crossing borders to pursue a work opportunity and endure a long, harsh jail sentence. A breadwinner may save earnings for many years and pay smugglers to obtain a passport, only to have the money stolen. A family may endeavor to send a daughter by boat for marriage in Malaysia and face the risk that she will be assaulted by her traffickers. Despite these risks, some Rohingya people continue to pursue transnational mobility in an effort to improve their own lives and those of their families. 

As a Rohingya participant notes, “Life is not easy to survive without freedom, wherever you go but maintaining your identity is very important.” Through these interview narratives, the project hopes to shed light on Rohingya people’s transnational mobility and its impacts while bringing awareness to each individual’s personal unique life experiences.