Podcast 19: Xchange Rohingya Survey findings


Hello and welcome to MOAS… 

Over 600,000 Rohingya refugees have arrived in Bangladesh since August 25th 2017 and that’s according to data collected by the UN and other aid agencies operating there.

As the crisis was unfolding we spoke to Pablo Gallego of Xchange.org. He’d just got back from Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh and was starting a survey about the newly arriving Rohingya refugees. Since his return, Pablo and his team have been working solidly collecting and analyzing data from the field team.

Now they’re set to publish their findings. On the 15th of December, we’ll get to explore the events which took place, shedding light on the incidents, abuses and journeys they’ve taken. We caught up with Pablo Gallego and Maria Jones of the Xchange team to find out more. Listeners will find some of descriptions in this Podcast upsetting.

This is the second time Xchange has investigated the Rohingya crisis…

So we did a survey in 2016 which was focused on the migration trends, on Rohingya people and after the attacks at the end of October/November 2016 we started thinking about documenting all of these crimes happening in Northern Rakhine and we’d been working from the beginning of year to come up with a project, documentation project and when this situation happened on August 25th, we saw this as our opportunity to go to Bangladesh and start collecting data and testimonies from the Rohingya refugees.


Where did you conduct your surveys and who helped you?

So we conducted the surveys in Cox’s Bazar, in particular in 7 different camps from Nayapara in the South to Kutupalong in the North of Cox’s Bazar and we had a team of 4 enumerators, all of them were Rohingya refugees from different crises. Three of them Rohingya refugees from the 1992 crisis, so they arrived after that crisis and one of them was actually a refugee from 2012.


What kinds of incidents did you uncover in the research? 

They were extremely varied the incidents but there were some that came up quite frequently for example; the burning of buildings, this was used all the time, people’s houses were burned, entire villages were razed to the ground. This was something that I came across all the time in the data. In addition to this, something which I found quite surprising was the amount of rapes and gangrapes that were being conducted quite systematically, as well as the killing of children and the means by which the perpetrators were killing children for example by throwing them in fires or into rivers.

[The military were setting fire to my village and they forcibly entered my home. They raped me and stabbed my husband. My young child was taken from me and thrown into one of the fires.  I cried out when it happened and they raped me again.]


Who was perpetrating these abuses and why?

For the most part it was the Burmese military but in addition to this it was different actors; extremists, Buddhist extremists, Rakhine extremists, various other ethnic groups which had been pitted against the Rohingya population.


 ‘Hindu, Burma mob, Sakma, Murun… also Rakhine, local Rakhine and the Hindu, Sakma, Mema and also the police and military…meeszu… meeszu means all of them’]


With the incidents you were told about, how did you verify that they had happened?

So the verification is being done afterwards, so we check on the internet, what news portals were releasing information on incidents in the same village and at the same time. Also we’d been using satellite imagery from other NGOs, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, they had released imagery showing the villages that were burned during the attacks. So we could see that the information and testimonies we were gathering were happening in the same locations reported by those NGOs.


What challenges and difficulties did you face conducting the surveys?

Yes. The location of villages was actually a major issue for us. The main problem is that there are two names for the villages. There is a Burmese name and there is also a Rohingya name. Many of the Rohingya refugees they don’t know the Burmese name so it was actually very hard to find some of the villages because on maps you normally get the Burmese name not the Rohingya name, so we have to investigate and try to find what was actually the Burmese name for a given Rohingya name. that took us around one week of work to geo-locate the villages, well we haven’t geo-located all of the villages, we managed to geo-locate 1,060 villages out of the whole dataset which is 1,300.

[I’ve been suffering for the past two months because of the military ‘extortion’. When the military eventually entered the village, they did not allow any men to stay in the village so we would have to quickly leave whenever they came. When they found a man, they would say “why are you staying, this is not your country, this is not your village, you are all Bengali, so go to Bangladesh”. When we said that they cannot go and this is their land, the military started shooting and setting fire to our houses and buildings in the village. We then ran to the paddy field with our families to take shelter. We stayed there for 3 or 4 days without food or water. We could not go back because they had burned our village down.]


What trends did you discover about the journeys taken by the Rohingya and how many entry points did you find?

So most rohingya refugees crossed the Naf River and it took them an average of 7 days. There is not a long distance from those villages to Cox’s Bazar but some of the Rohingyas especially those living in South Maungdaw and Rathedaung they did the sea journey, so instead of crossing the Naf river, they sailed across the Bay of Bengal towards the western cost of Cox’s Bazar, in particular to the village of Shamlapur. There are many entry points. We managed to find only 20 of them because basically they were the most common entry points and they were all along the border line from the South of the Peninsula to the North. I would say that we managed to geo-locate 20 entry points.

[It was the afternoon when we tried to cross the river to escape.  The boats engine failed and we started taking on water.  I was with my wife, my sons wife and my granddaughter. They all drowned.  We recovered their bodies and took them somewhere we could bury them.]



MV: ‘actually the river crosser, this person shouldn’t be a good person because they don’t fear border guards or anyone. If you’re a border guard and I’m a fisherman using a boat, so if you arrest me I can pay you because I don’t have any licence to pass refugees.’…‘so that is what I, sometimes I use smuggler because they aren’t always a trafficker’…‘they are a smuggler and trafficker because when someone doesn’t have money to pay them they snatch gold’

FV: ‘when the smuggler asks the passenger to pay the money, when they refuse to pay the money the boatmen will (slice) everyone on the boat’

MV: ‘they say if they see a beautiful and nice woman they don’t allow her to go anywhere’

FV: ‘they are also kidnapped’

MV: ‘if you seem like a gentleman they will charge 10 Kyat. If you look poor they will charge you, for one person, one Kyat’

MV: ‘if you say “I don’t have money”, if you have gold or anything expensive’

MV: ‘when I ask them “did you pay money to cross the border?” they say “yes”. “Who are they? Border guards or smugglers?” they say they don’t know… I ask them “if you don’t have money how can you take this boat?”.. they say “before we get on the boat, we have to manage the money”… if they don’t have money they have to manage the gold, if they can’t pay they will do many things’

MV: ‘they say when the smuggler enters the border of Bangladesh when everyone has left the boat and the smuggler pays money to the BDR who are the Border Guard’

MV: ‘I asked them “have you ever seen the trafficker paying the money to the Border Guard?” many people don’t know but some say they know but secretly they don’t show people that they are paying’]


We’ve just listened to audio of some of the enumerators discussing the stereotypical characteristics associated with the smugglers. Is this across the board or just in some cases?

From my point of view I think they were non-organised fishermen that took advantage of the situation and we could see that they didn’t have a fixed price for the refugees to pay but depending on the profile of a refugee, they would request more or less money. Also, you could see at some entry points the prices they had to pay, they were higher because the river was wider so the distances from Rakhine state to Bangladesh were larger. But, there was no fixed price for an entry point, there were huge differences.


There’s a suggestion of a link between the Bangladeshi border guards and the smugglers, did you discover more about this?

I cannot tell you that there was such a thing because we were not asking if they were coordinated with the Bangladeshi authorities. My impression is that they didn’t because they could enter freely and actually those entering through the North of Cox’s Bazar they could walk freely from Myanmar to Bangladesh, they didn’t pay any money, they just walked through. Actually, the Bangladeshi authorities after August 25th they opened borders. That was my impression they didn’t face any difficulties entering from the river.


Did people want to return if things changed? 

In that case, we wanted to know to what extent they would return to Myanmar. I didn’t ask the questions directly but the enumerators said that they [respondents] want to go back, they feel like they left their homeland and they left their lives behind to come to a country that doesn’t belong to them but at the same time they fear persecution and they basically they won’t go back if the conditions don’t change.


It was night time when the military forcefully entered my village of Bangnama and started shooting indiscriminately at the villagers. Everyone was afraid and some managed to flee but four people were killed.  We took shelter in neighbouring villages and the following night we returned to bury the bodies. The very next morning, the military started burning the villages.]


From a personal perspective, how did it feel to be going through this data?

Its not the easiest thing to do to read through testimony after testimony of glaring human rights abuses, truly horrific stories including mutilation, killing of children, but ultimately this is something that is going to feed into a very important report and the reason that we’re doing this report is to ensure that these stories aren’t forgotten. At the end of the day, I’m sat in my office going through data very comfortably, these people are in a foreign country now, with nothing and have gone through horrific horrific abuses, so that’s what I have to keep reminding myself, that the report is the most important thing and hopefully it will have some kind of impact.


The Rohingya Survey 2017 was released on the 15th December and you can read it in full here: http://bit.ly/2ArV9yE


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