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In Bangladesh, mix of warmth and doubt greet Rohingya refugees

With about 800,000 Rohingya now in border camps, fears of crime and security threats in Cox's Bazar are rising

In Bangladesh, mix of warmth and doubt greet Rohingya refugees

A Rohingya refugee carries his child at Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh on Sept. 10. (ucanews.com photo)

In impoverished Bangladesh sympathy for Rohingya abound but many Bangladeshis are increasingly suspicious of the presence of such large number of Rohingya in the country.

"I have sympathy for Rohingya as they are Muslims and persecuted, but if the government fails to accommodate them with all the basic essentials, it will be a disaster for Cox's Bazar as well as for the country," Muhammad Shahin, 30, a local grocer told ucanews.com.

"They might revolt and resort to violence which might go beyond government control," he said.

For decades, Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh to escape persecution in Myanmar (also known as Burma). The latest exodus however — now well over 350,000 in the past few weeks — has been the largest in generations.

Currently, Bangladesh hosts over 800,000 Rohingya, as many as half the group's overall population of mostly unregistered refugees residing in unhealthy, overcrowded camps in Cox's Bazar, just across Naf River that separates the two countries.

Initially, Bangladesh refused to let Rohingya people in but three weeks ago there was an escalation of horrific violence via a military crackdown that followed Aug. 25 attacks by Rohingya militant group, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), on 30 police posts and an army base in Rakhine.

The military's response has resulted more than 1,000 mostly civilian Rohingya dead — at least officially — and widespread stories of women raped and dozens of houses burned.

Senior United Nations officials have described it as "textbook ethnic cleansing" and amid generally favorable public opinion, the Bangladeshi government opened the border.

Tazuddin, 45, a hotelier in Cox's Bazar, which is also the country's most popular tourist destination, agreed.

"Some Rohingya have worked in my hotel and I found they are desperate for money," said Tazuddin. "They are vulnerable to petty crimes like theft as well as drug trafficking and terrorism. Sheltering Rohingya is risky for Bangladesh."

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Bishop Gervas Rozario of Rajshahi, chairman of Catholic bishops' Justice and Peace Commission, said now is not the right time to question the future impact of the Rohingya influx.

"The Rohingya are human beings and they deserve protection and refuge in the face of unjust persecution and ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar junta," Bishop Rozario told ucanews.com.

"That is why while giving them shelter and food, the government must also take precautions to thwart any illegal or terrorist activities of the Rohingya in future," he said.



Rohingya refugees swarm near a truck carrying food supplies at Ukhiya, Cox's Bazar district on Sept. 10. (ucanews.com photo)


'I could become a fighter in Burma'

The mindset of many young refugees in Bangladesh feed the fear and suspicion of the Rohingya.

Abu Siddique (not real name), 18, an unregistered refugee in Kutupalong camp in Cox's Bazar, said he has seen ARSA militants training on a nearby hill several times and he supports their acts.

"If I was born in Burma I could become a fighter to stand up against persecution of my community. I believe one day we will go to Burma and lay claim on our motherland," Siddique told ucanews.com Sept. 11.

"The Rohingya in Burma are foolish because they remained peaceful and engaged in farming for years. They should have sold their cows to buy weapons, so Myanmar military and Moghs (Buddhists) could be fearful of them and it could stop persecution," he added.

Syed Alam, an imam of a mosque in Kutupalong camp, said the only solution to end the Rohingya persecution is an end of Burmese rule in Rakhine.

"The Rohingya's backs are pressed against the wall in the face of persecution by the Myanmar government, military and Moghs and there is no option than taking up arms for survival," Alam, 50 told ucanews.com.

"Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan in 1971 with the help of India. Similarly, with support of Bangladeshi Muslim brothers the Rohingya can fight back against the persecution to claim their lawful rights," he added.

Large-scale Rohingya influx is a security threat to Bangladesh, says retired Major General Abdur Rashid, a Dhaka-based security analyst.

"In the past, the Rohingya committed crimes and militancy, because they are poor and desperate to make a living. The rise of ARSA also threatens the security of Bangladesh as they have overseas funding and possible connections with global extremist outfits," Rashid told ucanews.com.

"It is good for Bangladesh to shelter the Rohingya on humanitarian grounds, but it should not be forever and a system must be placed for their surveillance," he added. 


Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar's Rakhine State carry bamboo to build shelters on the hills of Ukhiya, Cox's Bazar district of Bangladesh on Sept. 10. (ucanews.com photo)


Bangladesh changes heart on Rohingyas

Relatively warm in the past, Muslim-majority Bangladesh has taken a tough stance on the Rohingya since 2012 — denied entry of fleeing people, banning aid groups from operating among unregistered refugees and floating a plan to relocate refugees to a flood-prone, uninhibited island.

The government has admitted that its nation is impoverished and overpopulated with at least 160 million of its own people making it under-resourced to shoulder the burden of more refugees.  

Critics say the moves intended to discourage further influx didn't work out. And, part of the resistance was due to lack of global attention to plight of the Rohingya and failure to repatriate tens of thousands already in the country.

The intensity of latest violence and an unprecedented global outcry from the U.N. and Muslim countries including Indonesia, Turkey and Malaysia, have helped soften Bangladesh's heart.

In addition to allowing Rohingya in, the government has planned to set up a camp on 2,000 acres of forestland in Balukhali, Cox's Bazar for new refugees and provide them with ID cards after "biometric" registration, which started on Sept. 12.

Besides, strongly criticizing Myanmar for atrocities against Rohingya, the government has also passed a motion in parliament on Sept. 11 to ask the U.N. to set up a "safe zone" in Rakhine for Muslims.

In a gesture of solidarity, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina paid a visit to refugees in Kutuplaong camp in Ukhiya town, Cox's Bazar on Sept. 12.

"We have sheltered you on humanitarian grounds, because we were once refugees in India during the 1971 war of independence. We will do our best to help you and push Myanmar with support from the international community so you can return home one day," Hasina said.

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