The current COVID-19 crisis has shrouded all initiatives to resolve the Rohingya issue in ambiguities, since every country’s main priority now is to tackle its own share of the rising infections. Yet ignoring the Rohingya issue could well impact the effectiveness of sub-regional and regional forums. Furthermore, the botched repatriation efforts are feared to create huge security risks, reports Press Xpress
The Rohingya refugee crisis is among the largest and fastest movements of people in the world’s recent political history. It is presently one of the major problems in Bangladesh as the South Asian country is hosting the forcibly-displaced Myanmar citizens who have little hope of going back home any time soon. The Bangladeshi government is struggling with growing security challenges near the refugee camps and domestic political pressure to resolve the crisis. It is also irritated by the lack of progress in repatriating any of over a million Rohingya refugees on its soil. The repatriation efforts have stalled, crime and violence in the Rohingya camps and around them in the southern part of the country appear to be on the rise, and Dhaka in some cases has started reacting increasingly sharply as the repatriation process of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar continues to come under constant pressure.
The pesky issue of Rohingya repatriation has come to the fore this time with Bangladesh calling for Vietnam to take on a larger role in addressing the crisis. Analysts and observers think Vietnam being the incumbent ASEAN chair is yet to lead efforts to improve regional cooperation and planning with concerned governments and United Nations agencies to uphold the rights of Rohingya refugees. Bangladesh sought Vietnam’s active support for a ‘speedy, safe and dignified’ repatriation of the forcibly displaced ethnic Muslim minorities back to their place of origin in Myanmar. Foreign Minister Dr Momen also sought Vietnam’s support in favour of Bangladesh’s candidacy as a Sectoral Dialogue Partner of ASEAN.
Bangladesh itself being a small yet over-populated country, is trying to solve the crisis with its utmost efforts using all of its diplomatic manoeuvres in the bilateral, trilateral and multilateral levels. Acknowledging the outstanding assistance in hosting 1.1 million Rohingya in Bangladesh, the US special envoy for climate change John Kerry during his recent visit to Bangladesh said that the global community must hasten its efforts to resolve the crisis as it is not merely the responsibility for Bangladesh. Bangladesh in every multilateral forum has been desperately raising the issue of the Rohingya crisis as it has a far reaching social, economic, environmental and security concerns not only for Bangladesh, but also for the South Asian region.
Over the years, the Myanmar military has forcibly dispatched around one million Rohingya refugees who took shelter in Bangladesh. Efforts towards a sustainable solution in Rohingya crisis is nowhere in sight. Meanwhile, in Cox’s Bazar, where the Rohingya live in temporary settlements spread across 34 camps, conditions have deteriorated with each passing year. Extreme weather, multiple fires, and a rise in criminal activities, which at times reach the worrying pedigree of terrorism, have left the refugees on the edge.
The crisis has shifted from a short-term response to a protracted emergency. Conditions in the camps have worsened as humanitarian services are scaled back during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2021, Rohingya faced massive fires and severe monsoon floods. Coronavirus cases have escalated in the camps, but vaccination campaigns didn’t begin until August – months after the national programme began.
Government restrictions on refugees and aid groups have grown, along with grievances among local communities on the margins of a massive aid operation. Crimes largely go unpunished because there is no formal justice system in the camps. With inadequate security and little accountability, Rohingya say a climate of fear has spread. They report being harassed, kidnapped, attacked, or extorted by people they believe are affiliated with militant groups or gangs. Refugees and aid groups say the violence and threats have reached a crisis point.
Currently, more than one million Rohingya refugees live in the globe’s biggest and most densely-inhabited refugee camp, Kutupalong, Cox’s Bazar. Bangladeshi host community, existing facilities and services are under massive pressure because of the immense scale of the arrival of refugees. Approximately, 18,700 Rohingya as have settled in groups in or near no man’s land, the border areas of Bandarban and Cox’s Bazar. It has tossed additional challenges in legal and security dimensions specifically.
The district’s Bangladeshi minority (especially in the upazilas of Teknaf and Ukhia) are in pressure due to the Rohingya invasion as the refugees now make up at least one third of the overall population in those areas. Not just the minorities, the whole nation poses a variety of security dangers and challenges across the boarders because of the present Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh. Human or non-traditional security, transnational security, internal security, militancy and terrorism, border security, and other issues etc. will be the upcoming problems among them.
According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), there has been extremely high incidence of murder and killings in Cox’s Bazar district, particularly in the region of Teknaf, which is dubbed as ‘Bangladesh’s most dangerous town.’
Crimes such as homicide, kidnapping, extortion, possession of illegal arms and drugs, robbery, rapes, smuggling, theft, human trafficking, and tranquillizers trafficking have burgeoned at the world’s biggest refugee settlement in Cox’s Bazar due to the entry of Rohingya refugees. The ratio of criminal activity in the camps is rising drastically as around 1,298 cases have been filed since 2017.
Latest reports appear that the number of filed cases were 208 in 2018, 263 cases were filed in 2019. In 2020, 256 cases were recorded, a decline attributable possibly for Covid19. But in 2021, the number of crimes reported were 570 cases filed from the refugee camps. According to law enforcers, the given figures does not reflect the true scenario as many crimes involving murder, kidnapping, and sexual harassment go unreported inside the refugee camps.
Cases filed against Rohingyas from 2018-2021
According to an authorized statistic, the figure of arms and drug-related cases has risen dramatically in comparison to other crimes from 2017 against Rohingyas living in Cox’s Bazar camps. In 2018, the number of cases filed for the possession of drugs or committing drug-related crimes were 95 while 152 cases were filed over drugs in 2019. In 2020, the number of cases moved to 136 and the total seizure of Yaba pills in that year was worth Tk 36.77 lakh. In 2021 around 184 Rohingyas were charged for drug related crimes. More than 500 drug-selling fields have been exposed in 30 Rohingya camps. According to Yaba merchant list, there are 13 leading Rohingya refugees presently in business. According to sources engaged with the law enforcement organizations, members of the BGB, Police, RAB, Coast Guard, and Narcotics Control Department; the price of Yaba seized was worth taka 177.58 crores and 121 Rohingyas were arrested for Yaba trafficking in 2021.
In 2018, 13 arms cases were filed, and 17 cases were filed in 2019 against Rohingyas according to statistics. In the year 2020, 27 weapons cases were filed and in 2021, 23 weapons cases had been filed against the Rohingyas. They were arrested with a significant number of sharp weapons, consisting of 14 domestic pistols, 44 LGs, three foreign pistols, 30 single-barreled firearms, 25 domestic guns, and four pipe guns with a total of 123 weapons. The Myanmar army is widely suspected to supply illegal weaponry manufacturing indirectly to create an unrest state around the region. According to law enforcement, weapons are supposedly being trafficked athwart the indiscreet border between India and Myanmar. Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal claimed that guns were flowing from Myanmar and weapons are being used to interrupt the atmosphere of Rohingya camps in various ways.
Drugs and arms cases from 2018 to 2021
Considering the aspects of the crimes and problems created by Rohingyas and Myanmar, PM Sheikh Hasina has called the refugees as a ‘threat to the security’ for Bangladesh and the region and has advised the global community to resolve the issue of Rohingya and Myanmar.
Previously, She had said “Myanmar will have to take back all Rohingya refugees who entered Bangladesh. We want peaceful relations with our neighbors”. Based on current scenario, the measures carried by governmental organizations, aid agencies, and prominent nations may momentarily help Bangladesh to diminish security threats. However, a perpetual solution to this issue is Rohingyas’ return to Myanmar.
Threats to Political Security: Government of Myanmar is not responding to resolve their issue with the Rohingyas living in Bangladesh. Over 805,673 Rohingyas have been listed via the GoB- UNHCR registration exercise, and remaining refugees are posing security threats being mixed with Bangladeshis and being engaged in conflicts with the local people. Moreover, the Islamic State (IS) emphasized in its online publications (Dabiq) that, the group would create a center in Bangladesh to attack Myanmar. These movements are threatening to both Bangladesh and Myanmar. Additionally, active links have been found with the banned Islamist groupings like Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) or Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami (Huji) along with some Rohingya groups. Hence, they are possibly endangering the defense of Bangladesh.
Threats to Economic Security: The Rohingyas are possessing threats in the economy by earning money illegally. Another threat is their involvement in lower income jobs are creating threats to local labors as Rohingyas have a lower PayScale than local individuals. On top, the needs of refugees are demanding an extra budget from the government of Bangladesh. All these are imposing threat to the economic security of Bangladesh.
Threats To Social Security: The illegal activities (trafficking, smuggling, murdering, theft, rape, drug dealing etc.) conducted by Rohingyas are increasing the fear, anger, and disturbance among local individuals. The increased crimes rates have already proved the threat Rohingyas impose towards the social security. Moreover, local media undesirably depict Bangladeshi female staff employed for refugees in Cox’s Bazar. This representation is raising problems to existing social stigma and security.
Threats to Foreign Relation: The Rohingyas are causing threats to the foreign labour markets, remittances, and relations of Bangladesh, specifically with Myanmar and other countries. Several unregistered Rohingyas moved to the Middle East with Bangladeshi false passports or NID cards and tried to introduce themselves as Bangladeshi and even got indulged in different crimes that hampered the impression of Bangladesh.
Threats to Food Security: The most pressing problem the Bangladesh government may face in Cox’s Bazar will be feeding over one million Rohingya refugees in Ukhia and Teknaf. Maintaining the large number of refugees in these areas with a regular supply of food is a big challenge for any country. But for one of the most densely populated countries in the world, it will be huge.
In 2021, the prospects of a safe return grew even more uncertain following a February military coup in Myanmar. The coup triggered a nationwide civil disobedience movement, re-ignited conflicts in Myanmar’s border regions, and worsened existing humanitarian crises.
Bangladesh and Myanmar have pledged to begin the repatriation of Rohingya refugees, but multiple deadlines have come and gone with no movement. The UN, right groups and refugees themselves say Rakhine State is not yet safe for Rohingya to return especially after the February 2021 coup. With no resolution in sight in Myanmar and bleak prospects in Bangladesh, Rohingya people are using once-dormant smuggling routes to travel to countries like Malaysia including a rising proportion of women and children.
Bangladesh has so far transferred some 20,000 Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char. NGOs have reported outbreaks of acute watery diarrhoea and the presence of cholera.
China and India the two heavyweights of the region could also play a constructive role in resolving the crisis. China and India are among Myanmar’s and Bangladesh’s closest international partners. Surely, neither power wants a festering border conflict among its neighbours in the Bay of Bengal.
Japan was initially indifferent to the Rohingya issue. However, in January 2020, it told Bangladesh that it was willing to mediate if needed. Japan has been increasingly making investments in both Myanmar and Bangladesh, and needs both countries to remain peaceful to profit from them.
The current COVID-19 crisis has shrouded all initiatives to resolve the Rohingya issue in ambiguities, since every country’s main priority now is to tackle its own share of the rising infections. Yet ignoring the Rohingya issue could well impact the effectiveness of sub-regional and regional forums. Botched repatriation efforts are feared to create huge security risks. Bangladesh will also continue to need international funding to support the Rohingyas. Long-term planning is also essential to provide the displaced people with at least semi-permanent housing, clean water, proper sanitation, education, and food security till they are repatriated.
Recent fires – mere accidents or acts of arson?
On January 9, 2022 a massive fire swept through shanties in Kata area of Camp-16 in Ukhiya, leaving thousands displaced. The fire destroyed around 1,200 homes of Rohingya refugees. Incidents of fire have become a common phenomenon in the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar. In March last year, 10,000 homes were razed to the ground in a huge fire in four camps in Balukhali of Ukhiya.
Officials concerned have often attributed the origin of fires to gas cylinders, but insiders in Rohingya camps have claimed that the fires are acts of arson. Speculations run rife among the host community that a section of the Rohingya people, who are growingly getting indulged in different criminal activities these days, might have a hand behind the mysterious incidents of fire.
However, Unicef has said all-out efforts are underway from partners to ensure that the learning centres in Cox’s Bazar Rohingya camp destroyed by the recent fire can be resumed as early as possible. Unicef further said that it is “deeply grieved” and stands in support of the thousands of Rohingya refugees affected by the 9th January fire that broke out in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps.
As the Rohingya refugees and their illegal activities are creating probable threats to the security of Bangladesh although Bangladesh has been providing them for so many enduring years. Momentarily, Bangladesh could seek aid from the global communities to fulfil the needs of expatriates and take necessary steps by narrowing the controlling system to confront security threats. However, as refugees have resisted to going back two times without the rights of their much-needed nationality, the government of Myanmar must meet the demands first. In this way, the stranded Rohingyas’ repatriation can solve the crisis permanently.
As for signing off, there are no easy options or solutions to the current Rohingya crisis. Some of the proposals here are being actively discussed by governments and within the UN, civil society and human rights communities. The long experience of Bangladesh and the Asian region in dealing with refugees has created awareness of the challenges and a potentially long road ahead. Powerful states that have influence can and should leverage Myanmar to ensure conditions, protection and monitoring measures in place to make any potential repatriation process feasible and sustainable. The governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar have much at stake and the most to lose in this process. Regional pressure and support can help a lot.