I started my journey of doing my PhD fieldwork at Rohingya refugee camp on a day in the middle of December 2021 and continued to stay at Ukhiya Upazila (sub-district) of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh up to the early of January 2022 for more than 20 days. Bangladesh is now hosting more than 1.3 million displaced Rohingyas and maximum of them are now staying at 34 makeshift refugee camps at Cox’s Bazar district (Rahman & Mohajan, 2019). Staying at a rest house of a Govt. office at Ukhiya, near the refugee camp, I took more than 40 in-depth interviews of the Rohingya male and female. After more than 30 hours of air travel I reached Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, from New Zealand and stayed some days with my family. Then by bus I started from Dhaka, on a night of December 2021 and reached Cox’s Bazar, the longest sea beach of the world, in the morning of the next day. After 10 hours of bus travel and a ride through a “tom-tom”—the Bangladeshi version of auto rickshaw—I was relieved to finally arrive at a 3-star hotel of Cox’s Bazar.
A fishing port, a tourist spot, and a district town on the southeast coast of Bangladesh with a 120 km long sea beach, Cox’s Bazar always attracts the local and international holidaymakers. Cox’s Bazar is the prime beach and tourist city of Bangladesh, situated alongside the beach of the Bay of Bengal, beside the Indian ocean, and it is connected both by air and road with the capital of Bangladesh. After the recent Rohingya exodus in 2017, this small seaside town has also become a hub for local and foreign humanitarian aid staff who work at the nearby Rohingya refugee camps. The 34 Rohingya refugee camps are situated at Ukhyia and Teknaf Upazila (Ansar et al. 2021), about a 2-hour journey by a car from the Cox’s Bazar town. I made my choice to visit the Rohingya refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar in the middle of December 2021 as at that time the Covid scenario of Bangladesh was good with less than 2% infection rate and the Cox’s Bazar Sea beach was also open for all.
After taking some refreshment at the 3-star hotel of Cox’s Bazar, at first, I went to visit the scenic beauty of the Cox’s Bazar Sea beach. Then on that day I went to the RRRC (Refugee Relief Repatriation Commissioner) office to submit my application for taking permission to get entry into the refugee camps as any outsiders (researchers) are not allowed to access the Rohingya refugee camps without taking proper permission. Two days were required for getting the permission letter from the RRRC office situated at Cox’s Bazar town. After getting the formal permission letter, on the third day, I started my journey through a CNG auto rickshaw from Cox’s Bazar town, to reach my staying spot at a Govt. rest house of Ukhiya Upazila (sub-district) of Cox’s Bazar.
On the fourth day of my field study, I could start my visit inside the Rohingya refugee camps of Ukhiya, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. About 80% Rohingya refugees have been living at Ukhiya Upazila (sub-district) of Cox’s Bazar and this Upazila has the Kutupalong refugee camp — the world’s largest refugee camp. The mega Kutupalong refugee camp network contains 26 camps, and it houses over 700,000 of the roughly 900,000 Rohingya refugees sheltering in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh (as of February 2022). On a sunny Sunday morning of December 2021, I along with my friend (who stayed at Ukhyia for his job) and a Rohingya interpreter entered a Rohingya refugee camp, (one of the camps of mega Kutupalong refugee camp), after showing our permission letter to the CIC (Camp-In-Charge) office. Every Rohingya refugee camp has a CIC who is a Bangladesh Govt. employee, and the main gates of each camp are now patrolled by APBN (Armed Police Battalion) police of Bangladesh.
We walked past rows of bamboo shelters carved into the steep, sandy hillside, carefully climbing up doughy clay steps to reach a shelter to take our first interview of a Rohingya male. We entered the shelter by giving “Assalamualaikum – Peace be upon you” and gave our identity and purpose to visit the shelter. Upon entering the shelter, we saw an aged Rohingya man (more than 80 years old), sitting on a mat over the muddy floor of the shelter. Then he called his elder son to talk with us and we continued our conversations for more than one hour with the Rohingya male sitting on the mat. During the interview, the Rohingya participant replied in a mix of Bangla and Rohingya languages. The Rohingya interpreter translated the Rohingya language into Bangla and the interview was audio-recorded. The in-depth interviews have been taken by open ended questionnaires after taking participants’ consent.
On the first day at the Rohingya refugee camp I took three interviews of Rohingya refugees and among the three one was a female. The female Rohingya interviewee was previously known to the male Rohingya interpreter. It was a little bit difficult to take the interview of the female by a male researcher, but I could overcome the situation with the help of the male Rohingya interpreter. I have tried to find a female Rohingya interpreter but failed, as the female Rohingyas are practicing purdah (the religious practice of screening Rohingya women from men or strangers, especially by means of a curtain) and maximum female Rohingyas do not know Bangla language. So, with the help of a male Rohingya interpreter, I could manage to take the interviews of the female Rohingya refugees. During the interviews of the female Rohingyas, the male Rohingya interpreter generally sits beside the female as they are part of the same community, and I take my seat in the distance so that the female can maintain her purdah.
On the first day I took the interview of the female Rohingya (42 years old) who fled persecution from Myanmar to Bangladesh in August 2017 with her four daughters. The female Rohingya lost her husband through the killing of the Myanmar Army while they were living in Myanmar. She mentioned:
“Yes, I came along with my family members. I lost my husband at the hands of the Myanmar military and so I came along with my four daughters. My husband had been taken and tortured by the Myanmar Army and put in the jail and then he died or was killed by them (exact cause I do not know). In 2017, the Myanmar Army shot the Rohingyas, burnt our houses, and abused the females. Then finding no ways we started to flee Myanmar and came to Bangladesh. Now we are living in the Bangladesh camps for more than four years by the food rations as we do not have any opportunity for work.”
Staying at Ukhiya upazilla (sub-district) of Cox’s Bazar for more than 20 days I could visit five refugee camps among the 34 camps and took more than 40 in-depth interviews of Rohingyas and tried to find out their everyday meanings of health. Among the 34 makeshift refugee camps only two registered camps were present at the Cox’s Bazar since 1992 and the rest camps were formed after the latest 2017 Rohingya exodus (Nielsen et al., 2012). The PhD field study was my third visit to the Rohingya refugee camp area by which I took the lived experiences of the most vulnerable Rohingya people living there. In February 2020 I visited the Rohingya refugee camps and talked with the Rohingya refugees and took 12 in-depth interviews as a pilot study of my PhD research. In July 2018 I firstly visited the Rohingya refugee camp and talked to the Rohingya refugees as a journalist to know their daily lives and also to cover the news of Rohingya camp visit of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
Throughout my PhD fieldwork, I constantly worked to self-reflect on the power relationships between me and the Rohingya participants and think about my privileges as someone who could easily move within and outside of the camp area while my interviewees could not go outside of the camps. What was particularly valuable in the process of my ethnographic field study was reminding myself of the importance of ‘making a difference’ through this research, by the process which Mohan Dutta (2019) suggests “placing the body on the line.” I took the in-depth interviews of the Rohingya participants utilizing Culture-Centered Approach (CCA) – a health communication theory, founded by Prof. Mohan Dutta, that works through the lens of culture, structure, and agency (Dutta, 2008). CCA believes listening as the main tool to know about the participants’ lives and it works through the concept of placing the researcher’s “body on the line” as a starting point to depict the ways of everyday meanings of life of the participants who live within the capitalist-colonial structures (Dutta et al. 2019).