Unregistered Rohingya refugees in the Kutupalong settlement receive little outside support and face arrest if they seek employment in Bangladesh (Photo by Will Baxter)
For hundreds of thousands of unregistered Rohingya asylum seekers, life in Bangladesh has become increasing precarious. While Rohingyas face appalling conditions in Myanmar, across the border the Bangladesh government’s growing sensitivity to the refugee issue is putting an already vulnerable population of unregistered Rohingyas further at risk.
Tensions between Myanmar and Bangladesh have been high following a recent series of cross-border incidents, and the Rohingyas have become the most oft-used scapegoat in the political standoff between the two countries. Accusations have been thrown about by Myanmar – and then repeated by Bangladesh officials and local media – that Rohingyas are involved in terrorist activities and drug trafficking.
Despite an apparent lack of evidence, Bangladesh has responded by tightening border security, pressuring international aid groups to cease humanitarian assistance for unregistered Rohingyas and barring foreign journalists from visiting camps.
“Every month hundreds of Rohingyas try to enter Bangladesh and we push them back,” said Sirajul Islam, commander of the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) Damdamia Border Outpost (BOP) in Cox’s Bazar district.
“We know they are being persecuted in Myanmar, but we can’t let them in. We need to obey the government policy, and also there are already a huge number of Rohingya people living in Bangladesh,” he said.
Today, only about 30,000 Rohingyas are officially recognized as refugees – and therefore eligible to receive government and international support – while an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 are left to fend for themselves.
CR Abrar, a professor of International Relations and the head of the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit at the University of Dhaka, said that in labeling the Rohingya a national “security threat” the Bangladesh government had found a convenient excuse to “abandon its humanitarian obligations” and “justify not extending any support” to unregistered Rohingyas who have sought refuge there.
“Often the excuse is made by the Bangladesh government that we don’t have much of an obligation toward this community of people because we have not ratified the [UN’s] 1951 refugee convention,” said Abrar. “I believe that’s a very flawed way of looking at things.”
“[Bangladesh] should not feel that it has got the right to treat these people as it wishes,” said Abrar. “You cannot just dispose of a people by political decree.”
A Rohingya woman stands with a child in the Shamlapur informal settlement (Photo by Will Baxter)
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said it is “totally inexcusable that Bangladesh is denying the Rohingya the right to seek political asylum and refugee status” and that withholding humanitarian assistance from this group marks "an all-new low in the Bangladesh government’s already shoddy human rights record".
“We have received no credible information that indicates there are active Rohingya armed groups aiming to terrorize Rakhine state or the wider Burma,” he added, using the name for Myanmar that is preferred by advocacy groups.
The allegations of terrorist activities are pinned to rumors that the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), a militant group established in the early 1980s, has again started operating along the porous Bangladesh-Myanmar border, said Hanna Hindstrom, Asia Information Officer at Minority Rights Group. “However, most experts believe the RSO to be long defunct.”
In May, Myanmar authorities claimed to have shot and killed a member of the RSO, but later it came to light that the man was in fact a Bangladeshi border guard.
Abrar also said the terrorism allegations were “not backed up with any evidence”, but conceded that due to their marginalized state, some Rohingyas could have been coerced into trafficking drugs simply to earn money to support their families.
“In any given community there are criminal elements, errant elements.... But it does not in any way justify the way the [Bangladesh] government has targeted the Rohingyas,” said Abrar, adding that at most they could be operating as “mules” in the drug trade.
Hindstrom pointed out that “some Burmese nationalist groups and political actors may have an interest in vilifying and dehumanizing the Rohingya by associating them with ‘terrorism’ and ‘crime’”.
A Rohingya boy with a skin rash carries a jackfruit in the Kutupalong settlement. Many children in the settlements suffer from skin ailments as well as malnutrition (Photo by Will Baxter)
Regardless of the lack of proof, the narrative portraying Rohingyas as Islamic terrorists and drug trafficking bandits was quickly picked up and oft repeated by some Bangladesh government officials and local media outlets.
“A section of both the electronic and print media in Bangladesh became vehemently anti-refugee” and in doing so have “played into the hands of the government and intelligence agencies”, said Abrar.
“The Rohingyas are the scapegoat for everything,” he said. “That’s the standard sort of discourse.”
The repercussions of this are not insignificant given that local media coverage plays a critical role in determining how a refugee community is perceived in its host country.
Bangladesh's media should "avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes and demeaning rumors about the Rohingya and focus on holding its government to account for its odious treatment of minorities fleeing persecution," said Hindstrom, citing past instances of border closures and forced repatriation.
A girl stands outside a house in the Shamlapur settlement (Photo by Will Baxter)
A step in the right direction
That’s not to say there haven’t been any positive developments. Bangladesh is now gearing up to undertake what it refers to as a “listing” process, whereby it plans to carry out a census of unregistered Rohingyas within its borders.
Rights advocates say the census could be a positive step if carried out with the appropriate aims. But as of yet, the government has not revealed exactly what it intends to use the gathered information for or what – if any – status would be granted to Rohingyas who come forward to be listed.
“Currently, the unregistered Rohingya population does not have any legal status and thus have no access to basic services or the Bangladeshi justice system. As a result, they remain vulnerable to exploitation and can easily be taken advantage of by criminal entities,” said Stina Ljungdell, UNHCR’s Bangladesh Country Representative, via email.
The census could potentially lay the groundwork for voluntary repatriation of Rohingyas if the situation in Myanmar improves, she said.
“UNHCR remains hopeful that the ‘listing’ exercise will lead to some kind of documentation and temporary legal status to ensure that the population has access to humanitarian assistance and justice,” Ljungdell added.
Abrar agreed that at the “bare minimum” Rohingyas should be granted a status that allows them to “seek justice” for crimes committed on Bangladesh soil.
At present, there is a general tendency to treat and label Rohingyas as "economic migrants” instead of refugees, said Abrar. “As a result, what we see is these people are without any protection at all.”
From the moment they leave their homes in Rakhine state, their lives are fraught with vulnerability and exploitation.
Rohingyas are routinely taken advantage of by employers in the fishing industry and construction sector, denied wages, or subjected to trafficking. But given their tenuous status in Bangladesh, most remain afraid to speak up.
“Even people who are physically violated, even people who are cheated…do not dare to go to the competent authorities to seek redress” because they fear the repercussions of being discovered to have entered the country illegally, said Abrar.
Fishing nets hang up to dry in the Shamlapur settlement (Photo by Will Baxter)
In the Kutupalong informal settlement, residents said that restrictions on their movement, laws prohibiting their employment, and the constant threat of arrest made it nearly impossible to earn a living.
“The most serious problem for Rohingya people is that we don’t have freedom of movement and most of us are unemployed,” said Abdul Hafeez, a 38-year-old camp leader in Kutupalong. “Some Rohingya pull rickshaws, go fishing in the river and work on construction sites as day laborers. But they have to do it in fear because they could be arrested and sent to jail if they are caught by the police.”
Abdul Motaleb, a 64-year-old unregistered Rohingya in the Leda informal camp, echoed these thoughts: “In Bangladesh, we live in fear. If we go outside the camps, we might be arrested and jailed.”
A couple of days before he spoke with ucanews.com, Motaleb said that about 40 Rohingya men had gone to nearby Teknaf to work as day laborers, but had been arrested by police.
“Even if Rohingyas have a job, they often make only half of what local Bengali people make,” said Hafeez. “But they need the money anyway so they can’t protest if they are cheated.”
Rohingya fishermen stand on the beach near the Shamlapur informal settlement at the end of a day (Photo by ucanews.com)
Robertson said that after the listing process is carried out, “What’s critically important is the Bangladesh government should allow the Rohingya freedom of movement and [the] right to earn a livelihood, and allow access to basic services, like education and health.”
One hurdle that will need to be overcome is that many Rohingya fear the listing process could lead to forced repatriation – though rights monitors say this is unlikely.
“I have heard about the Bangladesh government’s listing plan. I have fears about it because I suspect they might try to send us back to Burma after the census is complete,” said Rojiya Begum, 33, who has been living in Bangladesh for about two years at the Shamlapur informal settlement.
“If the government wants to push us back to Burma soon, I will hide myself and my family to escape forced repatriation,” said Jahir Ahmed, 25, who also lives in Shamlapur. “But I don’t think they will do it. After all, we are Muslims and Bangladesh is a Muslim country. They can’t be that cruel.”
More than anything, the potential political repercussions would give Bangladesh pause before considering such a move.
“I don’t think that Bangladesh has the capacity or political will to round up and forcibly return over 250,000 undocumented Rohingya and they recognize they would face a firestorm of international criticism if they tried to do so, ” said Robertson.
Instead, Bangladesh continues to make life as miserable as possible in the makeshift settlements in the hope that residents will seek a better life elsewhere.
In a way, this is in line with the governments long-standing strategy of "wishing them away", said Abrar. And, over the years, many have left on boats bound mostly for Thailand or Malaysia. According to UNHCR, tens of thousands have attempted the journey since 2012. More than 1,300 have died.
A Rohingya boy sleeps after a day of packing fish for a Bengali businessman. The boy, age 12, works 8-12 hours a day for which he earns 100-150 taka (US$1.30-$2) (Photo by Will Baxter)
Denial of aid
In August 2012, Bangladesh issued letters ordering three international NGOs – Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Action Against Hunger and Muslim Aid UK – to cease providing humanitarian services to undocumented Rohingya refugees. The organizations toned down their profiles in the camps to varying degrees, but continued to quietly provide assistance. Then, as rumors began to spread of Rohingya-linked terrorist activities earlier this year, the government resumed pressuring the groups to cease their activities, according to a rights worker who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“This is a dangerous, short-sighted, myopic, and ridiculous policy that is being pursued,” said Abrar. “It emanates from the fact that there is complete denial that these people need protection and these are human beings [with needs].”
Camp residents said conditions were dire prior to the entrance of aid agencies, and many now fear the government's hardened stance could facilitate a return to that state.
“Before Muslim Aid started working in our camp, our condition was bad because we had no rations, pure drinking water, sanitation or health services," said Motaleb. "Now the Bangladesh government doesn’t want Muslim Aid to help us. I don’t know what will happen to us if there is no support from outside.”
Hafeez said that due to the unsanitary state of the Kutupalong camp illnesses were common, and that the MSF clinic was the only place they could turn to for help.
“This is a congested place and people here often suffer from diseases like malaria, diarrhea, typhoid and pneumonia. When they are sick they go to the MSF hospital for treatment because they can’t go to government hospitals,” he said.
“By targeting aid groups working with unregistered Rohingya refugees – such as Muslim Aid and MSF – Bangladesh is sending a very hostile message to the Rohingya,” said Hindstrom.
At the same time, it's not exactly a surprising move.
Hafeez offered a fatalistic denouement: “Persecution of Rohingyas has been going on for so long in Burma and we are not welcome in Bangladesh either. Nobody likes us. Nobody wants to accept us. Maybe the world leaders and international community should just bring all the Rohingyas together and throw a bomb to kill us all.”
“That would solve all the problems with the Rohingya people.”
A boy pumps water from a well at the Shamlapur informal settlement (Photo by ucanews.com)
*Officials at Bangladesh's Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment.