Oxfam has interviewed Rohingya refugees about their needs, hopes and fears for the future, and published their responses in a new briefing paper. Here Ed Cairns reflects on the responsibility to speak out.
More than 626,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar since 25 August, one of the fastest movements of people in history. By November, the world’s interest had largely moved on. But as refugees’ conditions threatened to get worse, Oxfam was listening to hundreds of Rohingya about their needs, hopes and fears for the future. We conducted 23 focus groups and almost a hundred interviews, and have published their views this week in a briefing paper, I Still Don’t Feel Safe To Go Home.
Refugees speak of their fear of return to Myanmar soon, and yet a strong feeling of belonging in that country, and a hope of eventual return to their homes. “If we could live freely,” Rofique, one Rohingya man says, “then we could go back.”
“I will jump in the river and die”, rather than go back, one 55-year-old widow, Rowida, saysIn a chilling reminder, however, of the rapes and sexual violence that helped drive Rohingya from their homes, women tend to be more determined not to return soon. “I will jump in the river and die”, rather than go back, one 55-year-old widow, Rowida, says.
Helping people like Rowida speak out is at the heart of the campaigning that Oxfam and many NGOs do. It’s on that basis that we speak out in our own voice. Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam International’s Executive Director, writes in the report that she is “outraged at the international community. It is failing to put the human rights of all, including the Rohingya, at the heart of its diplomacy – as it should be.”
But speaking out has a history of challenges for NGOs like Oxfam that combine campaigning with humanitarian and development programmes. Trying to help people like Rowida speak out places a heavy responsibility on all of us involved in these kind of interviews, and on Oxfam itself.
Many of the interviews with Rohingya men and women were conducted by my colleague, Sultana Begum. Twelve months ago, she and I were interviewing displaced men and women in north-east Nigeria, caught between the violence of Boko Haram and the government’s counter-insurgency that detained young men, without evidence of support for the armed group – some of whom were never heard of again.
In the writing of this report I have been deeply conscious that the interviews conducted were gruelling for both interviewee and interviewer alike. “Women quickly became extremely distressed at the prospect of return,” was how one colleague wrote up her focus groups, as the subject brought the horrific violence they had fled to the fore.
It’s not easy to achieve one of the principles of ethical research, “to improve the lives of participants.”On the one hand, interviewees value being asked to tell their stories. One Rohingya man, Siphu, said, “no-one has ever come to talk to me like this. No-one has ever asked me my story.” On the other, it’s not easy to achieve one of the principles of ethical research, “to improve the lives of participants.” That is what we seek to do. Oxfam’s guidelines on research ethics make that clear.
In this case, the benefit depends on the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh, the UN and others. We conduct these types of interviews when we think there’s a reasonable prospect of helping to influence such change. But that’s no guarantee. In 2015, I quoted Noor, a Yemeni woman who used to run a health clinic, in Oxfam’s first paper exposing Britain’s arms fuelling that country’s devastating conflict. “Since March,” she said, “the skies of Saada are raining fire every day.” But two and a half years on, British bombs are still being sold, to fall on more Yemenis like Noor.
There’s no easy answer to that. But when we ask women and men to repeat painful stories, we have an enormous responsibility to make it worthwhile, to campaign boldly to change the injustice that causes them that pain. Oxfam staff interviewing men and women in crises feel that responsibility profoundly.
When we ask women and men to repeat painful stories, we have an enormous responsibility to make it worthwhile.In our Rohingya report, Winnie Byanyima condemns the “crimes against humanity [that] are driving one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes of our times.” She demands “equal rights for all [Rohingya] as full citizens.”
That’s entirely in Oxfam’s tradition of speaking out on the atrocities of our times, from the genocide in Rwanda to the appallingly protracted horrors of Syria or South Sudan. But we’ve also had long, sometimes painful experience of judging how we speak out, while we protect everyone we work with, including partners and staff, on the ground. Because conflicts contain governments and groups who aren’t tolerant of criticism or independent voices.
- Download I Still Don’t Feel Safe To Go Home: Voices of Rohingya Refugees
- Download Oxfam’s Research Guidelines