Stephan Uttom and Rock Rozario, Dhaka
Updated: September 10, 2019 05:26 AM GMT
A Rohingya man and his daughter brave monsoon rain September 2017 after failing to find a place to stay at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
“It’s tragic for Rohingya that we always become victims of propaganda and abuses for the mistakes of a few bad people,” he told ucanews.com.
Ullah expressed frustrations over recent events and developments that tarnished image of his beleaguered minority community.
The former schoolteacher from Rakhine State in Myanmar fled to Bangladesh to escape a deadly military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in response to militant attacks on security forces in 2017.
More than 740,000 Rohingya have since moved to neighboring Bangladesh and now live in dozens of overcrowded refugee camps, surviving on aid from charities and the Bangladeshi government. They joined 300,000 Rohingya, who were already in the country having fled earlier bouts of violence.
Ullah wanted to do something to support the community, so he set up the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPH) at Kutupalong camp, the largest Rohingya camp in Cox’s Bazar.
Since then, the group has become a strong lobby for Rohingya rights, although it found itself in hot water recently.
A second attempt to repatriate thousands of Rohingya from Bangladesh to Myanmar failed Aug. 22 as no one would agree to return until five key demands were met, including citizenship.
Rohingya refugees carry their belongings to their new temporary home at the Kutupalong refugee camp
in December 2016. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Some government officials and local people accused the ARSPH of discouraging refugees against repatriation and collaborating with some aid groups in the refugee camps.
Three days later, about 200,000 Rohingya refugees attended a mass rally, organized by the ARSPH, to mark the second anniversary of their exodus from Myanmar, and reiterated the call for fulfillment of their demands and dialogue with Myanmar government to make repatriation happen.
The rally was allowed but didn’t go down well with Bangladeshi officials, who have since tightened security and surveillance in the camps.
A national Bengali daily, Kaler Kantha, published a report Aug. 27 accusing Ullah of illegally obtaining travel documents in order to join a Second Ministerial Advance of Religion Freedom in the U.S. and to meet President Donald Trump.
The report also accused his group ARSPH of receiving donations from a shadowy, Pakistan-based, Islamist organization.
Several local and national media outlets published a series of reports accusing Rohingya of being involved in crimes, including murder, drug dealing and armed militancy.
A Sept. 1 report in the Bengali daily Bangla Tribune said that guests invited to the “ear-piercing ceremony” of a daughter of “Rohingya robber” Noor Muhammad donated more than one kilogram of gold ornaments, plus a large amount of money.
A day after the report, Noor Muhammad was found dead near a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar; police said he died during a shootout between police officers and his gang.
“Rohingya got involved in crimes and clashes as they are divided in groups and even some aid groups are instigating them,” said Zabed Iqbal Chowdhury, a local journalist in Cox’s Bazar. “There are armed militants in the camps.
“When the Rohingya came, local people welcomed them out of sympathy and humanity, but in response they have been doing dirty things and posing a threat to local people. Their life is better here in the camps — that is why they don’t want to go back to Myanmar.”
Well-known celebrities have also been making anti-Rohingya comments.
“Rohingya might be Muslims but they are dangerous people. They have not become civilized in the past 400 years,” pop singer Asif Akbar wrote on his Facebook page Aug. 31. “Since entering Bangladesh they have revealed their true colors by engaging in murders and robbery.
“And now, by organizing a massive rally, they have issued a permanent threat to the independence and sovereignty of Bangladesh.”
Tarred with the same brush
Ullah, however, says the negative campaign against Rohingya is baseless.
“There is no denying there are criminal elements within the refugees but most Rohingya are peaceful people,” he said. “Our group has been cooperating with the Bangladeshi authorities to identify and arrest those involved in crimes, including murders and drug trafficking.
“We are thankful to the Bangladeshi people for their generosity and we want to maintain a good relationship with them as long as we are here. But we are also thinking about our future and it is our right to demand citizenship and basic rights to ensure our return in dignified and permanent.”
Foreign Minister Abdul Momen told reporters Aug. 31 that 41 NGOs operating in the camps had been banned over “misdeeds,” including compromising security.
The government Sept. 3 imposed a ban on mobile phone services in the Rohingya camps and ordered businesses not to sell SIM cards to them.
The next day, in an interview with German broadcaster Duetsche Welle, Momen said Bangladesh was reconsidering a proposal to move 100,000 Rohingya refugees to a flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal.
The minister even threatened to expel U.N. agencies if they didn’t support that plan and accused them for not doing enough to pressurize Myanmar to repatriate the refugees.
The Election Commission of Bangladesh has also ordered an investigation and action against Rohingya refugees accused of obtaining national identity cards by using fake information and bribing officials.
In a surprise move, the government Sept. 2 transferred Muhammad Abul Kalam, head of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission — the main state body overseeing refugee and relief operations — and seven camp in-charges (CICs) from Cox’s Bazar.
Kalam was known for his hard work, patience and professionalism in leading Rohingya refugee response programs in Cox’s Bazar and became what some observers called “the humanitarian face” of Bangladesh.
‘Find the criminals’
The government needs to identify the real culprits behind crimes in Rohingya camps instead of taking hasty measures against all refugees, says Holy Cross Father Liton H. Gomes, secretary of the Catholic Bishops Justice and Peace Commission.
“I don’t believe Rohingya refugees would have dared to commit crimes like murder, drug dealing and getting fake NIDs without the support of criminals,” he said. “The camps must come under better security and surveillance, so nothing wrong can go unnoticed and out of control.”
Local people’s opinion of Rohingya as a threat is behind the recent turmoil, says retired Brigadier M. Shakhawat Hossain, a political and security analyst based in Dhaka.
“Local community has faced the burnt socio-economic impacts of Rohingya influx, and now they are fearful Rohingya might never return to Myanmar. Besides, criminal gangs are exploiting Rohingya. So, locals see Rohingya as a grave threat,” Hossain told ucanews.com.
“Instead of taking impatient moves, the government must work better on both ends — for repatriation of refugees, and also to assert control and surveillance in the camps. Misleading moves might take the situation out of control,” he said.