Thousands of Bengalis protest at Cox's Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh on March 4 demanding the speedy repatriation of Rohingya Muslims. They also demanded that the refugee camps be properly fenced off, and that jobs be made available to local communities. (Photo by Abdul Aziz/ucanews.com)
Thousands of local residents in Cox's Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh took part in hours-long protests on March 4 demanding the speedy repatriation of Rohingya Muslims to Myanmar, and more jobs with aid agencies operating among the refugees.
Holding banners and placards, about 5,000 people blocked the Cox's Bazar-Teknaf highway for nearly two hours at the Koat Bazar area in Ukhiya, close to the refugee camps, stopping vehicles and putting forth their 14-point list of demands while they formed a human chain.
Apart from demanding the swift return of the Rohingya to their homeland, they called to fence off the camps with barbed wire, and sought employment opportunities with NGOs active in the area.
The Odhikar Bastobayon Committee (Rights Realization Committee) organized the protest.
At one point, police charged with their batons raised to disperse the protesters, who responded by pelting brickbats at them.
At least 16 people, including two policemen, were hurt in the clashes. The protesters also vandalized five vehicles, two of which belonged to the police.
Sharif Azad, one of the committee's leaders, said the Rohingya pose a threat to the local community.
"When they started fleeing to Bangladesh in 2017, we welcomed them with open arms. But now they have become a threat," Azad, a Bengali Muslim, told ucanews.com.
"They recently killed a doctor and an Imam. In the dark of night, they come out of the camps and engage in illegal and anti-social activities," he said.
"They need to be properly fenced off, and the surveillance inside the camps needs to be increased."
While many local people are struggling to find work, the Rohingya are making money working for the NGOs, he alleged.
"Thousands of Rohingya work for the NGOs operating among them, which is illegal and unethical. If this continues, the sense of frustration we feel will only get worse," he said.
Muhammad Kamal Hossain, the chief government officer in Cox's Bazar, dismissed most of their demands as "illogical."
"We already contacted local and international NGOs asking if they could offer jobs to locals, and many local people have been working for them," Hossain told ucanews.com.
"The protesters demands … are illogical. Security has been always tight in the camps and it will continue to be so," he added.
Mazharul Islam, who is running a Rohingya refugee project with Caritas, the social arm of the Church, said most of the NGOs have been supporting the local community.
"Most NGOs rely on them for 30-60 percent of their workforce, but they can't employ people who are not qualified for technical jobs such as engineers, doctors or nurses," he said. "About 60 percent of our staffers are locals."
He agreed that some Rohingya do slip out of the camps after dark, saying the authorities need to impose more stops and checks.
Muhammad Sayed, a Rohingya community leader from Kutupalong refugee camp, sent a message of thanks to their hosts.
"We are grateful to the Bangladeshi people, especially the government and the people in Cox's Bazar, for offering us shelter and support," he said.
"We don't want to stay here forever, and we don't want to cause them any harm. Once we have a more favorable situation in our homeland, we all want to go back."
Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for centuries, but many in the Buddhist-majority country consider them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Cox's Bazar is now home to more than a million Rohingya, mostly from Myanmar's Rakhine State, where they are denied citizenship and basic rights.
The majority fled two military crackdowns in 2016 and 2017 after Rohingya militant groups attacked security forces in Myanmar.
They joined about 300,000 Rohingya who were already living in Bangladesh after fleeing earlier bouts of persecution at the hands of Buddhists and successive military governments.