Show Hide image

The long wait

Persecuted and oppressed in Burma, Rohingya Muslims are fleeing across the border into Bangladesh. S

It is dawn at the Kutupalong refugee camp and men, women and children are filing into a hastily erected bamboo structure resembling a covered cattle market. On all sides are tables manned by volunteer doctors armed with polio drops and measles injections; once treated, children are handed vaccination cards and have their ears blackened with marker pens. At the exit, entrepreneurial refu­gees wait with ice-cream bikes rented for the occasion, selling coloured ice lollies to those with spare change.

Not all who join the queue know what they are lining up for, but they are reassured when they see the Médecins Sans Frontières workers in sunhats and stained T-shirts. The Muslim Rohingya people have fled a culture of oppression in Burma to find themselves starving and stateless in Bangla­desh, and the kindness of strangers isn't something they are in a position to turn down.

The discrimination and violence against the Rohingyas began in Burma's western Rakhine State following the 1962 coup, when the military junta that still reigns first seized power. Marriages became subject to costly and time-consuming applications for licences; similar permissions were required for travel, so that many Rohingyas never left their villages until the day they fled their country. Land rights were revoked, leaving farmers helpless as government officials occupied fields and repossessed livestock. Boys and men were routinely rounded up and forced to work on government projects from construction to jungle clearing; many of the mothers, wives and daughters they left behind were raped by soldiers. Those who refused to work were sent to prison, where they were beaten or tortured.

Many thousands of Rohingyas fled to Bangla­desh over the decades, but in 1991 the trickle of Burmese Muslims crossing the Naf River swelled and flooded a pencil-thin peninsula with more than 250,000 refugees. The Bangladeshi government registered newcomers at 20 camps in the hills surrounding Cox's Bazar - a Dubai-style pleasure palace teeming with five-star hotels and upmarket beach cafés - where they remained while the two nations wrestled over the fine print of a repatriation agreement. Between 1992 and 1997, 236,000 refugees were sent back to Burma, the vast majority against their will. Of the 20 camps, Kutupalong is one of only two that remain, both operated by the UNHCR. Between them, they hold 26,000 Rohingyas who are registered as residing in Bangladesh.

The unofficial number of refugees is, however, far higher thanks to a second wave of border crossings in the past two years. It is hard to put even a rough figure on the scale of the influx: Bangladesh's refusal to accede to the 1951 Refugee Convention gives it no legal obligation to guarantee the status or safety of refugees, and no Rohingya has been formally registered since 1992. Moreover, the similarities between the Rohin­gyas and the Chittagonian-speaking natives of Cox's Bazar make it hard to distinguish asylum-seekers from local people. But the numbers are growing. The official Kutupalong camp is now surrounded by a nebulous shanty town, whose mud and thatch homes make the original wicker and galvanised steel houses look luxurious by comparison. The 200 refugees arriving at the camp in 2007 were followed by 2,000 more in 2008; by March 2009, more than 20,000 unofficial settlers were ranged around Kutupalong, and hundreds more are turning up every week.

Conservative estimates now put the total number of Rohingyas in Bangladesh back at around 250,000. This is a grave problem for the world's eighth most densely populated country, in which roughly a quarter of the people live in extreme poverty. In May, the Bangladeshi foreign minister travelled to Burma to begin rewording a repatriation deal proposed by the military government in late 2008, but failed to secure formal assurances that those resettled would be treated any better than before.

Meanwhile, the squalor at Kutupalong deepens. The open doorways of the low-slung mud huts offer glimpses of emaciated old men collapsed corpse-like in corners, or women rocking wailing babies in makeshift hammocks. An elderly man approaches with his young son. The boy is weeping: his arm is badly swollen, his lip bloodied, and one eyebrow is opened in an angry cut peppered with grit. "He was out collecting firewood this morning when a group of men from the village attacked him," the father says. "Others just watched."

Sarah, an MSF worker from Somerset, confirms that mobs of locals are now frequently attacking refugees. "It's not hard to see why: these people are living on government land, creating cultural tensions and draining resources in an already poor community. They are rejected by Burma and ignored by Bangladesh, and every time they stand up for themselves they get pushed back down."

Every day refugees arrive with severe disabilities that have gone untreated for years. Eleven-year-old Mahabieh rarely leaves her father's hut due to a tumour that has swollen one side of her face to the size of a football. Thirty-year-old Fir Ahamad is so incapacitated by a muscle-wasting disease that his elder brother Noor carries him slung over his shoulder like a sack. "In Burma I worked as a forced labourer," he says, "and every time I fell down they beat me."

For the MSF doctors, working in collaboration with Unicef, such individual ailments must take a back seat to the wider threat of humanitarian disaster. Space is now so short at Kutupalong that newcomers are being forced to erect flimsy shacks on what is essentially floodplain. Even more worrying is the water supply; the unofficial refugees are drinking from 12 hand-drawn bucket wells in which the water was milky with stagnation and chronically high in bacteria long before the monsoon began to wash human waste down the hill. "Right now the clinic is dealing mainly with malnutrition, skin diseases and respiratory infections," says Sarah, "but if the water supplies are contaminated we're likely to see a huge surge in sickness and mortality that we're going to struggle to cope with."

The Bangladeshi government constantly monitors those working to help the Rohingya people, determined to prevent too rosy a picture of refugee life being painted, lest it encourage others to cross the border. Yet many are ready to risk death to escape living under the Burmese regime. "In Burma we were less than animals," says Juhura Begum. "We were like ghosts, living lives that had already ended. At least here we can act like human beings and go about our business with a small measure of freedom."

Kamal Hussein, 35, is forced to hobble around on a wooden crutch, one leg shattered in a beating and trailing uselessly in the dust, but he says that life here is a "paradise" thanks to his new-found freedom to pray at a handful of improvised mosques.

Hossein Hag, who watched his business collapse due to travel restrictions inside Burma, feels a similar sense of hope. "I used to dream of escaping poverty by making a success of my business," he says. "Now I know there are worse things than poverty, and more important things than financial success. In Burma we lived constantly in the shadow of death. Bangladesh feels like a place where life can begin again."

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Is Google Evil?

Getty
Show Hide image

The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.