Don't Need Our Volun-Tourism

The Rohingya Don’t Need Our Volun-Tourism, by Rahima Begum

In times of human devastation and horror, like the situation faced by the Rohingya community in Myanmar, it is absolutely vital that our compassion translates to effective solutions and not just volun-tourism, writes Rahima Begum.

It’s crucial that what we do is also useful, directed and managed properly and comes with the right intention and preparation.

Volun-tourism. At RestlessBeings, we have been contacted by up to a dozen plus people on a daily basis in the last two weeks – individuals who are planning to make a trip to Bangladesh right now to help the community. These calls are from people who are not affiliated with any organisation. They want to go with their friends or by themselves to support those in need. Some are from newly-formed organisations that have never been on the field and have no experience working with the Rohingya. They tell us that they want to go and just ‘see’.

As much as the intentions and passion is sincere and they are keen to do more than just sit online and share news and make a little donation, it is very difficult as directors of an organisation that has been campaigning for this community for a decade now, to say, “Sure, go ahead.”

RestlessBeings have always had an upfront approach. We are ready to help those who want to make the journey but we have to be frank about the potential obstacles and sometimes, irrelevance of such efforts. If you are not an NGO worker, nor belong to a registered charity, nor from the press or major agency like the United Nations or Human Rights Watch or World Food Program, please stop and reconsider.

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There is no shortage of manpower on the ground. In fact, many of our own team members, personnel from other charities and  journalists whom we have assisted recently, have said that the Bangladesh border is heaving with people who have no relevant experience.

Money well-spent? Why not put the cost of your plane ticket toward a donation instead? This can amount to £600-£1,500 just for the flights, accommodation and food, for just one person. Multiply that figure by ten, if not hundreds, of volunteers. That money could amount to a sizeable donation. Volunteer-run organisations like ourselves are present on the ground, with teams made up of the Rohingya community members and Bangladeshi trained staff.

Do not add to the chaos, unless you find a charitable organisation which needs you there.

Check your intentions. If you’re going for research purposes or with the support of an organisation, fair enough. Prepare well and keep your intentions in check. Don’t do it because you want to feel like a hero and bask in the glory of your Facebook friends asking you to ‘stay safe’.

Your presence and lack of adab is counter-productive. Many Rohingya refugees have expressed their discomfort at the sight of so many international visitors. Women-refugees are particularly deprived of privacy – including opportunities to shower, change or relieve themselves. Unauthorised volunteers do not come with the police check certificates, which are normally mandatory in the United Kingdom when working with vulnerable adults and children. It is thus, difficult to protect women and children refugees. We have found volunteers taking pictures of and touching women and children. The intention may be good, but many of the refugees find it uncomfortable and overwhelming. They are not a spectacle – theys need peace, rest and sleep. They do not want cameras in their faces, volunteers seeking selfies and random individuals or groups peering into their temporary tarpaulin shelter.

Let’s pace ourselves. The Rohingya people have suffered for decades. In a few months, when the story disappears from headline news, when the online buzz dies down, we would encourage individuals to visit. That is the time when the refugees will want to see that they are not forgotten, but right now, we have an emergency relief situation. The distribute of aid and support needs to be organised and structured.

Deepen your knowledge of the Rohingya. The images of suffering is enough to make us want to dig deep and donate but there is much to learn about this community. Read up and then educate those around you.

  1. Rohingya is the name of their community, not where they live so let’s all use the right terminology. Don’t say “Take me to Rohingya.” There is no place called Rohingya. The Rohingya community are one of the many ethnic groups of Burma. They live in Rakhine, which was once Arakan (Kingdom of Arakan)
  2. The Rohingya have been suffering for the last 60 years. There are waves of violence every few months followed by a burst of social media activity, so global support has not been consistent. Recently, the attacks on the Rohingya have been particularly horrific. The majority of the population have now fled toward the border of Bangladesh, which is currently open. While the leader of Bangladesh, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been widely maligned for her approach to this crisis, our team’s report from the ground is that the refugees are not being turned away.
  3. Not all the Rohingya are muslim. A large majority are but not all. Regardless, they have been heavily affected. This is more than a religious attack. It’s a geo-political, economic crisis. The land that the Rohingya occupy is well-sought after.

Getting aid through. The UN and World Food Programme, amongst other major agencies, have no access to Myanmar right now. Some charities have managed to get through but with limited, restricted operations in towns and villages where both the Rohingya and Rakhine live so understandably some of their aid has gone on to support both. Different charities, including RestlessBeings, manage to gain access at different times and this remains an unpredictable and complicated process.

As donors, it is vital that we all understand the ebb and flow of the work done by charities on the ground. Sometimes we are needed most inside Myanmar and at other times, we are needed most in neighbouring countries, such as Bangladesh, because it is too risky to work inside Myanmar, where the military is ransacking and burning down entire villages. This is why the monetary donations we make can’t just be ringfenced for distribution in Myanmar.

Imagine this – the 500,000 Rohingya who have fled into Bangladesh are living in unimaginable conditions. They will die of disease, starvation and thirst, unless charities and aid organisations have the funds to support them. So pick a charity you trust and support. Donate to them. Check if they are on the ground and have access. Some charities like RestlessBeings have a 100% donation policy because we are voluntary run while other charities don’t(they take a small percentage for administrative costs or to pay their staff). Whatever and whoever you choose does not matter because if the charity is honest and dedicated to the cause, they will ensure your donations reach those who need it most. But be vigilant and do your research always.

RestlessBeings work in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, India and other parts of the region where the Rohingya have fled to. Support their efforts here.

Photo credit: Steve Gumaer