Shortly after the death of his father, Salah Uddin was born in what is now the world’s largest refugee camp – spending the first 14 years of his life there. Now 22 and having built a new life for himself after being given asylum in the UK, Salah calmly sets out the horrifying series of events that befell his family before he was born in Rakhine State in the nation formerly known as Burma as he sits in a small upstairs office of a Bradford community centre.
Part of the stateless and persecuted Rohingya people, Salah says: “My father was a doctor and my uncle was a political leader in Rakhine State. The military came to my house in Burma and asked for my uncle. The military shot him in front of my grandparents. When my grandparents went to save him, they shot them as well.
“My father was so scared, they decided to flee to Bangladesh. This was in 1996. My father passed away in the refugee camp from a heart attack. I was born in the camp and spent the first 14 years of my life in there.”
Eight years on from his arrival in Bradford – home to the largest Rohingya population in Europe with around 400 people – Salah works part-time as an international campaign officer for the British Rohingya Community (BRC), an organisation dedicated to seeking both justice and basic human rights for their people.
Their campaigning work from a room in the Laisterdyke Youth and Community Centre has received international attention and led to a recent meeting with Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, but when he is not at the organisation Salah works as a waiter in a local restaurant to help support his young family. From the depths of despair in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, Salah has built a new life for himself in Bradford and now has a wife and baby daughter.
“We were grateful to Bangladesh for having a camp but the conditions were just dire,” he says. “It was like a prison with security everywhere watching you. You couldn’t have any dreams to become something but after coming here, it is a different world. I started to think, ‘I’m part of the human race’.”
The plight of the Rohingya people came to much greater international attention last year after 700,000 Rohyinga people were forced to flee to Bangladesh from Rakhine State in what is now known as Myanmar. A 440-page report published by a United Nations fact-finding mission this week describes how the Myanmar military killed thousands of Rohingya civilians, committed mass gang rape and burnt down hundreds of villages in what it termed ‘clearance operations’ that began in August 2017. The UN report called for the prosecution of Myanmar’s top military leaders for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
The report also accused Burma’s civilian leader, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, of failing to use her “moral authority” to prevent the violence against the minority Rohingyas.
The roots of the current crisis – which led to the population of the Kutupalong refugee camp surpassing 540,000 people earlier this year – go back decades. The Rohingya represent the largest percentage of Muslims in the predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, where a citizenship law in 1982 excluded the Rohingya and made them stateless. The Myanmar government sees them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and there have been multiple military crackdowns against them. But Bangladesh has repeatedly sought the repatriation of Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar, reportedly in some cases against the will of those involved.
As the UN report notes, the extreme violence perpetrated against the Rohingya in 2017 and their mass expulsion “can only be properly understood against a backdrop of decades of institutionalised oppression and persecution affecting the lives of the Rohingya ‘from birth to death’”.
In 2010, Salah, his mother and two sisters were selected for the Government’s Gateway Protection Programme, which allows up to 750 refugees to legally settle in the UK each year but other members of his family remain in the camp to this day.
He made an emotional return to the camp last year with nine other BRC members from Bradford after the organisation raised £32,000 to distribute aid and was shocked by what he saw. “I have witnessed 10 people dead in front of my eyes,” he says. “People had travelled 15 to 20 days through the jungle. I found a young boy in shock and traumatised, about 11 years old. He said his mother and father had been killed in front of him and he had come with a random group of people to save his life.”
The 20-day trip also gave him the opportunity to see his family and visit his father’s grave. It also reinforced his determination to change the politically-complex situation. Attempts to pass a resolution on the crisis at the UN Security Council have previously been blocked by China, which has close links with Myanmar including the operation of a major cross-border oil pipeline.
“We want to get justice for our people to go back with safety and dignity,” Salah says. “We need a political solution. We are all human beings but we are like a political football for the world. The Burmese kick us out, Bangladesh kick us back.”
The concept of the BRC was the brainchild of Nijam Mohammed, its general secretary who helped found the organisation shortly after coming to Bradford in December 2008. It was originally called the Bradford Rohingya Community but changed its name to the British Rohyinga Community to help amplify its message.
“I went to college and people would ask where I am from,” he explains. “Nobody knew about the Rohingya. The idea came into my head - my mission was to let the UK people know how who the Rohyinga are.
“I contacted a few of my friends and said we need to do something, we need to speak up. We came up with the organisation so people would listen to us.
“Everyone was very helpful in Bradford. In the refugee camp, you weren’t allowed to join any organisations. So people were excited and very helpful but initially we didn’t know what to do.”
Nijam was a child when his family fled to Bangladesh in the early 1990s and spent 17 years of his life in Kutapalong before being granted asylum in the UK aged 26 through the Gateway Programme.
“The refugee camps are like an open prison, with limited food and limited space – one room for one family,” he says. “I’d say prison life is better than camp life – in prison you have the opportunity for study, you get different kinds of food. Leaving was like if someone has been living in prison for 17 years and gets out. When I got on the plane to the UK, I couldn’t believe it. When we arrived in Manchester there were lots of people helping us. I had never had this kind of respect in my life. I started feeling like a human being.”
He has subsequently made more than a dozen visits back to the refugee camp and says it was difficult to process how conditions have deteriorated since last year’s crisis.
“People arrived crying, some missing husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, sons, daughter. If you don’t see the scene for yourself, it is very difficult to explain how terrible it is. I couldn’t stop the tears.
“I spoke with a man who said the military had shot his mum, his dad, his sister, his three daughters and three nieces in front of him. But they didn’t kill him because it is like a psychological game to make other people scared by having someone survive to explain what happened.”
He says he is determined to make the most of his fortunate position in Britain to try and improve the situation for his people, even if it comes at a personal cost.
“We try to stay strong. If I become weak, there will be nobody to speak on behalf of my community. You don’t show people how you feel because if you break down, they will break down too.”
Nijam wants the Myanmar military to be taken to the International Criminal Court and is also focusing on trying to raise awareness of the plight of Rohingya refugees being kept in prison in Saudi Arabia – one of the issues he raised in his meeting with Mr Hunt. He says the international community must now take action on the entire situation.
“We are fighting for rights which are basic for human beings. If the UN and the EU and the US give good attention to this issue, it will be solved. If they don’t and no perpetrator is brought to justice, my people will be part of history. It is time for the world to take notice before it is too late. When the Rwanda genocide happened, world leaders said ‘never again’ – but it is still happening. If you let the perpetrators get away, then others all over the world will not fear to do this to other people as well. The world must act now.”
UK provides £129m in aid to help refugees
The British Government has contributed £129m to aid efforts for the Rohingya people, including providing education and skills training in refugee camps.
The UK is now calling on the international community to provide long-term support to keep the people safe for years to come.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has been visiting the region this week and has promised additional British support to gather evidence from Rohingya victims of sexual violence at the hands of the Burmese military.
Mr Hunt said: “The United Nations fact-finding mission exposed terrible suffering in Burma, and in the face of such serious allegations, no country that considers itself humane can stand back and do nothing
“We are determined to do all we can to provide security, dignity and justice to the victims.
“It will be a long journey, but it starts with their conditions right now.
“We have already provided counselling and psychological support to more than 10,000 women and deployed mid-wives to help provide care to over 53,000 women,” he said.
“Together with our international partners, we will increase our support for those who have been victim of these heinous acts.”