Rohingya start businesses to survive refugee camps

Many want to stay in Bangladesh until Myanmar can guarantee their human rights, but Hindus keen to head home
Rohingya start businesses to survive refugee camps

A Rohingya vendor sells fish at a market inside the Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh on March 15. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)

At a small market in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh's most popular tourist destination that is now home to tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees living in camps, customers bargain for daily necessities like fish, vegetables and even cosmetics.

At this makeshift trading center in Balukhali, near the Bay of Bengal, about 200 shops on 30 acres of private land owned by a local Muslim man cater to customers from dawn to dusk.

The smell of freshly cooked food and tea hovers over the place as a handful of tea stalls and restaurants busily serve dozens of customers.

But this is no ordinary Bangladeshi village market.

Both the sellers and buyers here are refugees — from the Rohingya Muslim community that has settled in Balukhali following a brutal military crackdown on the ethnic minority in Myanmar's northern Rakhine State across the Naf River that separates the two countries.

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Two phases of the crackdown, which started in October 2016 and got a second wind in August 2017, has seen over 670,000 Rohingya flee to Bangladesh for safety from what the United Nations has termed a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing."

Muhammad Rashid, 22, came to Balukhali last October with his family of nine after they fled Baguna village in the Maungdaw area of Rakhine State.

Two weeks ago, Rashid opened a cosmetics and toy store in the camp with the 7,000 taka (US$84) he brought with him.

"I sell about 500 taka (US$6) of goods a day and I can make 100-150 taka profit, which is not a huge sum but it is enough for my family to survive," he told ucanews.com.

"Various NGOs offer us aid — clothes and food including rice, lentils, oil and potatoes, but we also need to eat vegetables and fish, and we must buy other things. My income enables me to get my family the things we need that the aid groups can't provide," he said.

Rashid said he would love to return to his ancestral home one day but he doesn't want to live in a camp in Myanmar, as mapped out in a recent repatriation deal between the two countries.

He also believes he can make a better living in Balukhali — at least for the time being — and he doesn't have to worry about coming under attack from the military.

"We don't have any threat to our lives here. We also receive aid from NGOs like the World Food Program [WFP] and we can scratch out a basic living and earn an income," he said.

"So unless we have families depending on us back home, and we can get a guarantee that our basic human rights will be protected, there's no point going back there," he added.

Khorshed Alam, 27, who oversees the marketplace on behalf of the landowner, says there are about 1,000 small businesses run by Rohingya in 12 formal and informal refugee camps in the area.

"We collect a small fee from these businesses on a daily basis as rent. They also pay to keep the place clean, for example to cover drainage and garbage-disposal costs. Our intention is not to make a profit but to help them for as long as they are here," Alam told ucanews.com.

Some of the refugees have taken out loans to gamble on a new business and a new life inside the camps. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)

 

Starting a new life 

Muhammad Mostaq, 46, runs a small business that sells solar panels and electronic goods in the market. A father of five from Rakhine's Buthidaung area, Mustaq was a businessman back home.

"We came here in late August last year and I had about 10,000 taka with me. I knew some Bengali businessmen in Teknaf [in Cox's Bazar] so I used a loan to buy some goods from them so we could start over here," Mustaq told ucanews.com.

Mustaq said he sells around 5,000 taka worth of goods a day on average and makes 1,500 taka in profit.

In addition to other items, he also sells aid supplies obtained from voluntary groups like the WFP including rice, lentils and oil.

"Every month, we get 60 kilograms of rice plus other food items, so we have some surplus and other refugees do the same. There are large refugee families who don't have enough aid so they can buy things from us at a cheap price, and I can buy other essentials with the money I earn," he said.

Mustaq said he also doesn't want to go back to Rakhine State without any concrete promise of a life better than the one he is building here.

"We are living in peace and nobody wants to kill us. We have good food, medical facilities, our children can get a basic education, and we have an income and security," he said.

"I know Bangladesh wants to send us back home, but I don't plan on going back unless Myanmar can provide us with the same kind of facilities. I may have to stay in this camp forever, but it's better to die in the camp than [to be killed] in Rakhine State," he added

Many refugees share similar sentiments as Rashid and Mustaq — they feel they have strong reasons to stay put in Bangladesh despite a life of hardship in overcrowded and unsanitary camps.

Many express concern that the repatriation deal Bangladesh has signed does not include any clear-cut promises guaranteeing their basic rights back home, including citizenship status.

Many of the Rohingya Muslim refugees are intent on making the Balukhali refugee camp their home until Myanmar can guarantee their safety. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)

 

James Gomes, who works for the Catholic charity Caritas, said most of these small businesses have sprung up out of necessity.

"The local administration didn't allow businesses in the camps and the aid groups didn't lend their support, but the refugees set them up on their own anyway. It's not permissible but no one can forbid them to do it as that would be a violation of their human rights," said Gomes, who serves as Caritas' regional director in Chittagong, a coastal city and financial center in southern Bangladesh.

"Some refugees may want to stay here because they think they have better prospects, but most want to go back as they know life won't get better for them here. After all, Myanmar is their homeland," he told ucanews.com.

 

Hindus hungry for home

Some 500 Hindus who also fled the violence in Myanmar have settled in Kutupalong, in the western part of Cox's Bazar, home to the largest camp with over 400,000 refugees.

Unlike the Rohingya, most can't wait to get back home.

"Muslims don't want to go back as they think life is better here in Bangladesh," Shishu Pal, a Hindu refugee, told ucanews.com.

"So they don't care much if they are repatriated. They are starting to settle here. But all of us Hindus want to go back, and most of us want to live separately from the Muslims," he added.

While many Rohingya suffered deadly bouts of violence from the Myanmar military and extremist Buddhists, the Hindus who fled were hounded by groups of masked men who massacred dozens of Hindu men, women and children in late August.

The Myanmar Hindus blamed the killings on Rohingya militants but many Rohingya vehemently deny the allegation and point their fingers at the military and at overzealous Buddhists.

"Hindus have lost faith in Muslims, but they don't think the Myanmar government will persecute them. So they're eager to get home and start a new life," Pal said.

 

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