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Bangladesh: Rohingya turmoil

The Government is facing enormous stress in dealing with the Rohingyas, due to rampant crime, and is seeking urgent repatriation to Myanmar.

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A Rohingya refugee man pulls a child as they walk to the shore after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border by boat through the Bay of Bengal in Shah Porir Dwip. [Photo: Reuters]

On June 2, 2023, a Rohingya man, identified as Mohammad Rdwan, was shot dead and another, named Ayas, was injured in an attack by some unidentified gunmen in Ukhiya upazila (sub-district) in Cox’s Bazar District. An Armed Police Battalion (APBn) official said that assailants had carried out the attack to establish dominance in the camp.

On May 11, 2023, a Rohingya man, Kabir Ahmad, was shot dead while another, Mohammad Rafiq, was injured in an attack by 10-12 unidentified gunmen in the Palangkhali refugee camp under Ukhiya upazila.

On May 7, 2023, an operative of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) was beaten to death by local residents at a Rohingya camp in Ukhiya. In the opening fire by ARSA operatives, three Rohingyas, identified as Ramida Khatun, Mohammad Rafiq, and Zubayer, were injured

Though precise data regarding fatalities is not available, according to partial data collated by the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), at least 165 persons, including 74 civilians, 45 Rohingya criminals, 45 militants and one Policeman have been killed in violence in and around Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar District since August 15, 2017. The violence is primarily the result of inter/intra group rivalries between criminal-terrorist groups operating in the region, and their efforts to establish their dominance.

On August 15, 2017, Muslim insurgents calling themselves ARSA launched an assault on 30 Myanmar Police posts and an Army base in the north of the Rakhine State of Myanmar, in which nearly 80 insurgents and 12 members of the Security Forces were killed. As fighting intensified between the Myanmar Army and ARSA, thousands of Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh. More than 725,000 Rohingyas fled Myanmar, to Bangladesh. Since then, the Rohingya refugee issue has repeatedly cropped up in the mainstream political discourse in Bangladesh in particular, and in the wider South Asia region in general. Rohingya refugees had crossed the border and entered Bangladesh earlier as well, with significant spikes following violent attacks in 1978, 1991-1992, and again in 2016. As of April 2023, over 950,000 stateless Rohingya refugees were residing in the Ukhiya and Teknaf sub-districts of Cox’s Bazar. The vast majority live in 34 extremely congested camps, including the largest single location, the Kutupalong-Balukhali Expansion Site.

Unfortunately, these camps have turned into deadly crime zones.

Meanwhile, a report placed by the Ministry of Defence, before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence on February 15, 2023 stated that, at the time, 10 criminal-terror gangs were active within Rohingya camps. Among them, ARSA was active in Ukhiya, Balukhali, Palongkhali and Huaikong camps. Previously known as Harakah Al Yakin, this group is responsible for launching multiple attacks on the Myanmar Army. Another influential group, the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), also operates in Ukhiya and Palongkhali camps. This group was formed in the 1990s and resurfaced after the 2017 influx. Furthermore, Islamic Mahaz is active in the Hoikung camp and the Master Munna group in Ukhiya and Palongkhali camps. The report further stated that six robbery rings are active in the Nayapara camp: Chakma robber group, Putia robber group, Nabi Hussain robber group, Zakir robber group, Khalek robber group, and Salman Shah robber group. Separately, the Jabu robber group operates in the Waikong camp. The report also stated that, in 2021, 22 incidents of murder took place. In 2022, the number rose to 32.

A December 13, 2022, report, citing Police sources, claimed that at least 2,441 cases had been registered over the preceding five years, in relation to murders, weapons, drugs, abductions, and rapes, among others.

Earlier, in August 2022, Rafiqul Islam, Additional Superintendent of Police in Cox’s Bazar, disclosed that they found the involvement of Rohingya people in 14 types of criminal activities inside 34 camps, including drugs and human trafficking, abduction, theft, robbery, snatching arms and rape.

There are numerous reasons behind such crimes, the most significant being the necessity of various insurgent organisations to dominate and control the illegal trade related with human trafficking, drug peddling and other criminal activities. Such rivalries result in chaos and an unceasing cycle of violence. For instance, as reported on February 26, 2023, Ko Ko Linn, a leader of RSO, circulated an audio recording urging his followers to carry out mass killings of members of ARSA, located in the camps in Ukhiya. The recording was made after the destruction of the ‘Zero Point’ Rohingya refugee camp by RSO on January 18, 2023. The audio recording has raised serious concerns about the role of the leadership of RSO in the refugee camps. Earlier, on January 19, a gun battle between ARSA and RSO at a refugee camp on the no-man’s-land (zero line) along Tambru border in Bandarban District caused the entry of at least 500 Rohingyas into Bangladesh, forcing them to take refuge at a school in the Tambru area of Naikhongchhari Sub-District, according to Muhammad Alam, a member of the Ghumdhum Union Parishad.

On January 21, 2023, wanted Burmese language posters depicting the ‘chief’ of ARSA, identified as Ataullah Abu Ammar alias Jununi, and 27 other suspected terrorists were displayed at various Rohingya camps in Kutupalong and Balukhali in Cox’s Bazar District in the Chittagong Division. The posters also show names of each of their family members. The APBn stated that they were unaware of who put up the posters. According to Balukhali Camp-8 leader Mohammad Khalil, the poster said, “They are terrorists. We ask you to help catch these people. If anyone sees them in any camp, please let the authorities know.”

These camps have also become dens of illegal drug smuggling. On January 30, 2023, a court in Cox’s Bazar sentenced eight Rohingya men to life imprisonment in a case of smuggling some 200,000 narcotic pills into the country in 2019. They were also fined BDT 100,000 each. According to the case documents, on September 19, 2019, a team of the Teknaf Coast Guard seized a fishing boat from Chera Dwip in Saint Martins under the Teknaf Sub-District of Cox’s Bazar District. Earlier, Cox’s Bazar Senior District and Sessions Judge’s Court on November 16, 2023, sentenced four people, including a Rohingya, to death in a case filed over smuggling 1,300,000 Yaba (a cocktail of methamphetamine and caffeine) pills. Judge Mohammad Ismail handed down the sentence around noon and fined each of the convicts BDT 50,000. The case was filed with Cox’s Bazar Sadar Model Police Station on August 23, 2020.

Also, a large number of narcotics seizures are regularly recorded in Cox’s Bazar. According to partial data compiled by the ICM, at least 369 incidents of drug recovery have been reported since 2021, in which 2,830 persons have been arrested (data till June 11, 2023). In a recent major haul, on May 6, 2023, RAB arrested four persons along with 24 kilograms of crystal methamphetamine near the Ukhiya-Palangkhali border in Cox’s Bazar. Earlier, on April 26, in another major haul, Border Guard Bangladesh recovered over 21.09 kilograms of crystal methamphetamine from Ukhiya.

Many Rohingya youth try to escape the Refugee Camps through sea routes towards South East Asian countries, and in the process some of them get involved in criminal activities as well. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) disclosed that over 3,500 Rohingyas attempted sea crossings in 39 boats in the Bay of Bengal in 2022. UNHCR also reports a 360 per cent increase over the year before (2021) when some 700 people made similar journeys, UNHCR Spokesperson Shabia Mantoo stated on January 17, 2023. Some 3,040 individuals who undertook the sea journey disembarked in 2022, primarily in Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

While the Bangladesh government has been taking care of the Rohingya refugees in spite of a challenging economic situation, the available facilities and aid appear insufficient, mainly because of reduced funding from the foreign donors. As reported on February 16, 2023, the Bangladesh government and UN humanitarian agencies sought USD 881 million from various donors across the world in 2022, but the latter only disbursed a total of USD 431 million to the Joint Response Plan (JRP) fund. There is also uncertainty regarding the quantum of funds the government will get in 2023, to support the Rohingyas. In the meantime, on February 20, 2023, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina sought assistance from the UN to relocate Rohingya refugees from the camps in Cox’s Bazar to a housing project in Bhasan Char Island under the Hatiya Sub-District in Naokhali District. She made this appeal when UN Resident Coordinator Gwyn Lewis met her in Dhaka, stating “If the Rohingya can be relocated to Bhasan Char, where accommodations for over 100,000 people have been created with livelihoods, they can lead a dignified life in a liveable atmosphere.”

As of January 2023, 29,510 Rohingyas have been relocated in 15 phases, to Bhashan Char. In addition, in May 2021, 306 Rohingya who tried to cross the sea illegally to Malaysia were rescued and transferred to the Bhasan Char Camp.

The Government is facing enormous stress in dealing with the Rohingyas, due to rampant crime, and is seeking urgent repatriation to Myanmar. On May 29, Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen stated, “For Rohingyas, better future is only possible in Myanmar, not in Bangladesh. Confidence building measures are being taken. It is better they start returning to Myanmar.” Earlier, a 17-member delegation from Myanmar reached Teknaf in Cox’s Bazar District on March 15, 2023, to scrutinise the list of Rohingyas for repatriation, sent by Bangladesh to Myanmar. The delegation started verifying the identities of the Rohingya refugees in the Teknaf Sub-District of Cox’s Bazar. Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Mohammed Mizanur Rahman stated that there was a list of 1,140 Rohingyas who are to be repatriated under the pilot project, of which 711 have had their cases cleared.

Bangladesh is facing the brunt of the burden of Rohingya refugee flows due to its geographical proximity to Myanmar. The government is taking care of the refugees and also dealing with the increasing law and order problems some of them are creating. This issue can only be addressed with a substantial increase in aid from humanitarian agencies and, eventually, with the Myanmar government’s accelerated repatriation of the Rohingyas, who belong to Myanmar and not Bangladesh.

Sanchita Bhattacharya

Sanchita Bhattacharya is a Research Fellow at Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, India

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