Unregistered Rohingya refugees in the Shamlapur informal settlement in Cox’s Bazar district in June of last year (Photo by Will Baxter)
Authorities in Bangladesh's southeastern Cox’s Bazar district forced out thousands of undocumented Rohingya refugees from their makeshift refugee camps on Wednesday, leaving them homeless.
Rohingya Muslims living in about 2,500 homes were driven out of the pine forests of Shamlapur, a fishing village about 50 kilometers from Cox’s Bazar town. Officials estimated no more than 7,000 were evicted, but Prothom Alo, the country’s most popular Bengali daily reported the figure to be 35,000.
The refugees had lived in the area since the 1990s, occupying dilapidated houses and relying on fishing for their livelihood. All had fled sectarian violence in their native Rakhine state, in Myanmar just across the border.
Officials said the eviction is a part of a policy to reclaim the area from illegal encroachers along Marine Drive Road that runs through the country’s most popular tourist destination.
“We have followed instructions from the Prime Minister’s Office to clear government land close to Marine Drive Road. We have received many complaints that Rohingyas have been involved in various criminal activities in the area,” said magistrate Jahid Iqbal, assistant commissioner of land in Teknaf sub-district who led the eviction assisted by police and border guards.
“We didn’t force them out of their settlements. We asked them to move out and they left their places,” he said.
Iqbal said the evicted refugees won’t be sent across the border and that he was waiting for further instructions from higher authorities as to what aid would be provided to them.
“We have written to the government for a rehabilitation package and aid. We will have its response soon,” he added.
The evicted Rohingyas meanwhile disputed Iqbals claim that they were not forced out, saying their homes were torn down by authorities.
“At around 10am police came and told us to leave our home, but we didn’t move because we had nowhere to go. Then they smashed our home and now we are living rough,” said Hasina Begum, 45, a widowed mother of three.
“We have no roof over our heads. My children are hungry and I have nothing to feed them,” she added.
Though Rohingyas have lived in Myanmar for generations, the government considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and has resisted offering them citizenship. Those who have fled across the border to escape persecution are equally unwelcome in Bangladesh.
Since 1978, thousands have fled, many to the Cox’s Bazar district where around 30,000 Rohingyas reside in two official camps, relying on government and NGO aid for survival. As many as 300,000 reside in unofficial makeshift camps, where they face strict restrictions on movements and are frequently exploited for cheap labor.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in November said the government was planning to relocate Rohingya refugees to a “better place” from their camps in Cox’s Bazar district. Details as to where that “better place” is have yet to be released.