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Bangladesh’s Rohingya problem

The Rohingya have suffered systematic discrimination, disenfranchisement, and targeted persecution for decades — and small and large groups have been coming to Bangladesh from at least the 1970s following violence in Rakhine.

Written by Monojit Majumdar | Cox's Bazar |
Updated: June 19, 2022 10:04:19 am
Bangladesh rohingya issues, Bangladesh news, Rohingya refugees, Rohingya discrimination, Indian express newsFishing sampans on Cox’s Bazar beach this week. It is on boats like these that many Rohingya arrived in Bangladesh (Express Photo: Monojit Majumdar)

Five years after Bangladesh took in hundreds of thousands of Rohingya driven out of Myanmar, the refugee population is exploding — with serious security implications. Bangladesh warns that the consequences of potential crime and extremism will not leave India untouched. The Indian Express visited the Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Cox’s Bazar, the world’s largest refugee camp.

From the 40-foot-high watch tower at the highest point of the winding, up-and-down mud-and-brick road, the shantytown is seen stretching in all directions, until it fades into the monsoon mist. Tin and bamboo huts, some of them lined with blue or grey plastic sheets, cling to red mud hillsides, along with clusters of trees, palms and shrubbery.

The lanes radiating from the main road are numbered, with UNHCR and Bangladesh government signs, and the names of international aid organisations and humanitarian nonprofits.

This is Kutupalong in the Ukhiya upa-zila of Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district, the world’s largest refugee camp. Here, a million of perhaps the world’s most unwanted people live cheek by jowl on a little more than 6,000 acres — 24 sq km — of denuded forest in which elephants roamed until recently.

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The Kutupalong Refugee Camp is the world’s largest refugee camp. In the main camp and smaller neighbouring camps in the Ukhiya upa-zila of Cox’s Bazar district, more than a million Rohingya refugees live in a vast shantytown that sprawls over 6,000 acres of denuded forest land. ( Express Photo by Monojit Majumdar)

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Starting late August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya, an indigenous Muslim ethnic minority living mainly in Myanmar’s southwestern Rakhine state, fled as the country’s military launched a campaign of terror against the community, including torture, gangrape, mass executions, and the razing of hundreds of Rohingya villages.

The vast majority came to Bangladesh, landing on the white sand beaches of Cox’s Bazar, or crossing the Naf river into the country. A UN fact-finding mission concluded in 2018 that the reasons for the exodus included crimes against humanity, and accused the Myanmarese military of “genocidal intent”.

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The Rohingya have suffered systematic discrimination, disenfranchisement, and targeted persecution for decades — and small and large groups have been coming to Bangladesh from at least the 1970s following violence in Rakhine. Before 2017 — when the Myanmar military unleashed a brutal response to alleged attacks by a group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army — waves of Rohingya had come to Bangladesh in 1978, 1992, 2012, and 2016.

More than 50 per cent of the Rohingya refugee population in Bangladesh are children and adolescents aged 17 or younger. A large number of international aid organisations and humanitarian NGOs work in the camps. (Express Photo by Monojit Majumdar)

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As several thousand refugees, whom the Bangladesh government calls Forcibly Displaced Myanmar Nationals (FDMNs), arrived on August 25, 2017 — and kept coming for weeks afterward — the Kutupalong camp underwent dramatic expansion.

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Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said the Rohingya reminded her of the plight of her own family and people during the 1971 war of liberation when India had opened its doors to them. If Bangladesh could feed 160 million of its own people, it could also share its meals with the helpless victims of war crimes committed next door, she said.

That was almost five years ago. There have been no fresh arrivals of Rohingya for many months now. But there has been very little progress in repatriating those who are already in Bangladesh.

In the camps, peace, the absence of violent persecution, and the assurance of food and medical care of the kind that many Rohingya had never enjoyed earlier, have led to a sharp increase in their population. As the world has shifted its attention to crises in Ukraine, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia, the Rohingya are no longer discussed as frequently or with as much urgency. And Bangladesh, at last tiring under the burden of its own generosity, is beginning to worry.

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According to UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, there were 926,486 registered Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh as of May 31 this year. More than 780,000 live in the Kutupalong camp and a few smaller camps in Ukhiya; another 116,000 are at the Nayapara and nearby camps in Teknaf upa-zila to the south. More than 26,000 have been transferred to Bhasan Char, a 40-sq-km island that emerged from the Bay of Bengal near the mouth of the Meghna river in 2006.

A large number of international aid organisations and humanitarian NGOs work in the camps. (Express Photo by Monojit Majumdar)

Bangladeshi officials say the actual numbers are bigger — at least 1.1 million FDMNs live in the Kutupalong camp alone. Some 35,000 new births are registered every year in the camps, they say, but the number of babies born would reach closer to 60,000 if unregistered births are counted as well. This massive population is putting an enormous burden on resources and the environment, besides creating conditions for criminal activity and friction in local society, senior Bangladeshi officials said.

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“The annual rate of growth of population in Bangladesh is 1%, while the population of the Rohingya is growing at 6 or 7 per cent. Over the last five years, more than 70,000 pregnant women have come from Myanmar, and more than 200,000 children have been born in the camps here,” said Dr Hasan Mahmud, the Information and Broadcasting Minister of Bangladesh.

“These numbers are over and above the 2 or 2.5 lakh Rohingya that were already living in this country before 2017,” he said.

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More than half the registered population of the camps is aged 17 or younger, according to a fact sheet published jointly by the Bangladesh government and UNHCR. Sixteen per cent — almost 150,000 — are children younger than 4, and were born in Bangladesh. Another 36% — more than 330,000 — are children and teens between the ages of 5 and 17. The average family size in the camps is 4.7, and close to 7 in 10 families have between 4 and 9 members each. See the chart below:

Data: Joint Government of Bangladesh-UNHCR Population Factsheet (as of May 31, 2022) *628 individuals pending verification as to camp location following the closure of Camp 23 (Graphic: Ritesh Kumar )

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This rapidly growing reservoir of stateless, deracinated Rohingya carries serious social and security implications not just for Bangladesh but also for India, especially its sensitive Northeast, several Bangladeshi officials and security experts said.

“Crime such as kidnapping for ransom, petty theft, and dacoity are increasing. Cox’s Bazar occupies a key location on the Bay of Bengal, and some Rohingya have been found to be involved in the trade of drugs — mainly ya ba, a combination of methamphetamine and caffeine whose name means ‘crazy medicine’ in Thai — and the trafficking of humans,” said Commodore Mohammed Nurul Absar, a retired naval officer who is now chairman of the strategic affairs think tank Central Foundation for International and Strategic Studies.

The Naf river marks the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Many Rohingya refugees came on foot, crossing the Arakan Hills in Myanmar, and then the Naf into Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district. (Express Photo by Monojit Majumdar)

“We also cannot rule out the rise of extremism in the camps in the future. The Rohingya often have little education, and many are angry and desperate, and vulnerable to radical Islamist ideology,” Absar said.

Minister Mahmud said while the Hasina government was taking all required security steps, a million or more people packed in the camps did present a major concern. “Already they are involved in criminal activities,” he said. “It (the camps) can become a breeding ground for fanaticism, and a recruiting ground for extremist groups.”

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Dr Ashikur Rahman, Senior Economist at the Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh in Dhaka, said the world is yet to fully fathom the economic costs and political risks of the lack of progress on the repatriation of the Rohingya to Myanmar.

“Even as the commitment of aid to the Rohingya refugees dwindles in the foreseeable future, it will take perhaps more than a billion dollars annually just to ensure their basic livelihood. Given the increasing demographic pressure (in the camps), I don’t see the economic burden of this crisis being eased anytime soon,” Rahman said.

Cox’s Bazar beach is a spectacular 150-km stretch of white sand, one of the world’s longest beaches. It is at various places along this beach that the Rohingya landed in 2017. (Photo: Monojit Majumdar)

With more than 10 million Ukrainians facing displacement due to the war with Russia, the world’s political elite were unlikely to give the Rohingya any more attention than earlier, Rahman said. “As a result, this refugee crisis is here to stay — and the challenge for local and national policymakers is to ensure that it does not now blow out into a political crisis.”

Voices in the camp

This could happen in two possible ways, Rahman said. As bitterness among the host population increases, local political actors could seek to reap the tension — hurting, among other things, the tourism potential of Cox’s Bazar. And the Rohingya, given their contacts across the border, could potentially become conduits in the drug trade of Southeast Asia.

“We must anticipate and prevent this problem, rather than react to it,” Rahman said. “Bangladesh is stuck between a rock and a hard place with no easy way forward.”

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Absar too flagged the destabilising potential of conflict between the local community and the refugees. “Many Rohingya are willing to accept very low wages, undercutting the competition for work. They are supported by the international community and NGOs, and they sometimes have more cash in hand to spend, triggering resentment in the local people,” he said.

The Palongkhali forest is the habitat of the endangered Asiatic elephant, Absar said. “Many species of wild animals were displaced once the camp came up. The environmental degradation is huge.” Several incidents of fire and human-animal conflict have been reported in the camps.

Agencies like the World Bank and UNHCR acknowledge the concerns around both the environment and the potential for conflict with the local population.

The Bangladeshi-led 2022 Joint Response Plan of the UNHCR launched in late March this year sought more than $881 million to support 1.4 million people, including around 540,000 Bangladeshis living in communities around the camps.

At the end of March 2020, the World Bank had announced a $350 million grant for the needs of both the Rohingya and the host communities. In 2018, the Bank announced a project to restore trees in 19,925 hectares in Cox’s Bazar, besides sustainably improving the availability of wood for fuel and reducing human-wild elephant conflict.

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Most refugees in Kutupalong say they want to go back to Rakhine, provided the international community can ensure their safety. Bangladeshi officials and analysts, speaking on the record and off, aren’t so sure.

“It is my prudent apprehension that the Rohingya crisis will stay with us for the long haul, and I do not see any meaningful repatriation happening in the next five years,” Rahman, the economist, said. A senior officer in the Bangladeshi security establishment put it less delicately: “No Rohingya is about to go back. Because if they go back, they will face the same violence and persecution that they fled in the first place.” Another officer said: “Look at their options. They get aid and rations here. They are stateless anyway, and at least their lives aren’t in danger here.”

And yet, Bangladeshi officials say, there is no alternative to full repatriation. The government in Nay Pyi Taw failed to honour an arrangement signed in November 2017 under which 1,500 Rohingya would have returned each week, completing the process within a couple of years. On February 28, 2019, Bangladesh, fed up with the “hollow promises” of Myanmar, told the UN that it would not accept any more displaced people.

“Not a single Rohingya has volunteered to return to Rakhine due to the absence of conducive environment there,” then Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque said. “Is Bangladesh paying the price for being responsive and responsible in showing empathy to a persecuted minority…?”

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The frustration has only grown since then. India, and more importantly China, must persuade the Myanmar junta to take back the Rohingya, Minister Mahmud said.

“We gave the Rohingya shelter, acting as a responsible member of the international community. Now the international community must stand beside both Bangladesh and the helpless Rohingya. If not resolved, this will not remain the problem only of Bangladesh, this will be the problem of the region, the problem of the world,” Absar, the retired naval officer, said.

The Rohingya issue has been the cause of tensions between India and Bangladesh in the past, and continues to carry that potential. Dhaka sees New Delhi as passing to it the entire burden of dealing with the Rohingya. Additionally, crackdowns on a few thousand Rohingya who have managed to enter India has forced some of them to flee to Bangladesh.

“That is not good,” said the senior Bangladeshi security official. “Pushing anyone to the wall makes them even more desperate.”

(The Indian Express was a guest of the Government of Bangladesh)

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First published on: 19-06-2022 at 04:00:28 am
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