Five years ago, in the month of August, Bangladesh opened its border for displaced Myanmar nationals on humanitarian ground, following the mass exodus of Myanmar’s Rohingya people facing persecution in their own country. Years have gone by, but no noticeable progress is being observed with regard to the repatriation of the Rohingya refugees. Not even a single Rohingya refugee has gone back to their country of origin despite repeated diplomatic efforts by Bangladesh aimed at their dignified return. The repatriation attempts failed twice during the time. Allegations run rife that a section of the national and international NGOs remain busy taking their own share of benefits at the cost of Rohingya people’s plights. These organisations are alleged to be least interested in Rohingyas’ repatriation and are often accused of fueling and politicising the Rohingya issue so that the persecuted people do not return to their country of origin – thereby leaving behind any chance of hampering those organisations’ illicit gains and vested interests.
ROHINGYAS AND THEIR PERSECUTION IN MYANMAR
The Rohingyas are Muslim ethnic people who live mainly in the Rakhine State of Myanmar. Their ancestors lived in Myanmar for centuries. Belonging in an Indo-Aryan ethnic group, they have a long history of living independently in Rakhine. When Myanmar, which was then called Burma, gained independence from Britain in 1948, they took over Arakan State. However, the Burmese rulers refused to accept the Muslim inhabitants of Arakan as citizens – especially when General Ne Win came to power in 1962 through a military coup. Since then, the Rohingyas remain deprived of their political rights and subjected to systematic genocide by the Myanmar military. When the Citizenship Act 1982 was enacted, the Rohingyas officially became the world’s largest stateless ethnic group. Official human rights violations have begun since. In fact, the junta government has always wanted to expel the Rohingyas due predominantly to their religion. As stateless people, the Rohingyas therefore have been facing the harsh persecution from time to time.
FAILED REPATRIATION ATTEMPTS
Bangladesh’s target from the beginning was to start the process of repatriating the Rohingyas as quickly as possible although they were granted shelter on humanitarian grounds. In order to pursue the purpose, Bangladesh signed an agreement with Myanmar on the repatriation of Rohingyas in November 2017. Later in September 2018, China became involved in mediating Bangladesh’s interest in speeding up the Rohingya repatriation process. Bangladesh-China-Myanmar trilateral talks began. Through the mediation of China, there were several talks between the two countries, both formal and informal, until January this year. Bangladesh and Myanmar set the first date for Rohingya repatriation on November 15, 2018. But, it failed! Through the direct mediation of China, Bangladesh and Myanmar fixed the date of Rohingya repatriation for the second time on August 22, 2019. For this, the Chinese officials went to the camp in Cox’s Bazar and talked to the Rohingya people. Unfortunately, dialogues on repatriation stopped again after the ‘untimely’ Myanmar military coup in February last. Besides, Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar camps placed a five-point condition for their safe return to Rakhine. These include granting Myanmar’s citizenship, ensuring their safety in Rakhine state, giving them back their lands there, compensating them and holding trial of the killers and torturers in the International Court of Justice. So far, no official statement has been received from Myanmar regarding the pre-conditions. As the environment in Rakhine isn’t conducive and the conditions set by the Rohingya including that of their citizenship not being fulfilled, none of the Rohingyas agreed to go back to Rakhine at the last minute.
HOPE FOR REPATRIATION
A recent positive development is that both sides agreed to start dialogue again. In January this year, the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar resumed repatriation talks. For this, a virtual meeting was held between Bangladesh and Myanmar on January 27, 2022. Considering the overall situation, State Minister for Disaster Management and Relief,
Enamur Rahman later in May mentioned that apparent progress has been made for the repatriation of Rohingyas. As a first step towards negotiations, the Myanmar authorities were willing to repatriate only 700 Rohingyas out of estimated total 1.2 million refugees. Reports say Myanmar authorities have verified only 42,000 out of 830,000 sets of biometric data of Rohingyas provided by Bangladesh.
This proves that Myanmar’s Junta government has considerable reluctance towards accepting Rohingyas as citizens. Covid-19 restrictions and the post-military coup situation in Myanmar have only made their repatriation all the more uncertain.
NGOS HELPED ROHINGYAS TO RALLY AGAINST REPATRIATION
Since the announcement of a possible start date for the Rohingya repatriation, many have expressed scepticism about the activities of some NGO workers in the Ukhia and Teknaf camps in Cox’s Bazar. Analysts then warned that Rohingya repatriation was being complicated by these NGOs. At the same time, it was reported that the beneficiary group was working against the repatriation of Rohingya. Eventually that fear came true. Several local and foreign NGOs persuaded the Rohingyas with joint statements against repatriation. The statement on the eve of the repatriation was like blowing air in the fire. According to the source, the demands made by the Rohingyas as a precondition for repatriation are not their own creation. There are some NGOs behind all this. The longer the Rohingyas stay in the country, the more they are considered to be benefited. Hundreds of NGOs are working for Rohingyas with domestic and foreign funding. On the other hand, the organizations formed in the name of Rohingyas get help and cooperation from abroad. Reports says that more than 60 such NGOs rallied in recent times against the repatriation of Rohingyas. All the complaints of the local people who are under intense pressure due to the Rohingyas are now directed at those NGOs.
In this regard, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said that action would be taken if Rohingyas were persuaded to stay in this country. He also stated that some local and foreign NGOs working in the Rohingya camps would be listed and brought under surveillance. However, government officials have been seen remaining silent over the issue despite anti-repatriation efforts were also fuelled by some foreign agencies. An official, who did not want to be named, said they were helpless with the foreign-funded NGOs. A pressure group called Inter-Sector Co-ordination Group (ISCG), an alliance of international humanitarian organisations, has been set up to resolve or manage the Rohingya problem in Bangladesh. An NGO worker has been made the coordinator of the ISCG to liaise with Bangladeshi officials on various issues. There are allegations that the NGO worker has been keeping a close watch on the government officials engaged in Rohingya related work.
LUXURIOUS NGO LIFESTYLE VS LOCALS’ SUFFERINGS
According to Joint Response Plan for Rohingyas (JRP), a total of 136 national and international organisations are working in the Rohingya camps, including 10 UN agencies, 52 International NGOs and 74 Bangladeshi NGOs. These NGOs receive money from various sources and a large part of the money is then spent for the benefit of the NGO officials. A large portion of the money is allegedly spent on luxury cars, highly-paid jobs, ‘extravagant’ training and accommodation of the working NGO officials in posh hotels and resorts. Both the visiting and stationed NGO officials are often found to experience lavish stay in those posh residential facilities. Due to this, it has now become difficult for the tourists to find a looked-for place in some hotels in Cox’s Bazar, Teknaf and Ukhiaeven in the tourist season.
The JRP report also stated, $430 million was needed in 2017 to meet the Rohingya crisis. Of this, $310 million was available through JRP, which was about 36 percent of the total funds receiving that year. According to the JRP in 2018, a $950 million plan was adopted for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. That year, $650 million was received. This year $881 million has been sought under the JRP. According to the latest UNHCR report, aid to address the Rohingya crisis in 2022 has become very limited or inadequate. In the first six months of the year, only 34 percent of the demand was met.
As there is no visible sign of repatriation, the locals seem to be annoyed by the Rohingya presence in the area. They claim that the NGOs are responsible for the non-repatriation. They are doing business by capitalizing on Rohingyas. They added that if NGO activities are not controlled, repatriation will be very difficult. The locals have placed demand before the government to take effective action by revealing who’s active against Rohingya repatriation, who’s providing placards, leaflets, and who’s writing posters in English and reaching out to them.
In the meantime, the residents also suffering from house rent hike due to the employees better housing demands. Rustom Ali, a local resident of Kalatali, Cox’s Bazar, and a sports personality, said that most of the NGO workers stay in prestigious residential hotels including Seagull, Ocean Paradise and Royal Tulip, and a good number of NGO professionals are renting residential facilities at an exorbitant rate. With this, the very problem that arises is that the living conditions of local people in Cox’s Bazar are often compromised. He also said that the house rent in Cox’s Bazar that was available for merely Tk 5,000 five years ago has risen to Tk 15,000 these days thanks to NGO workers’ desperation for better housing needs. Local people in Cox’s Bazar also said the NGO workers leave for the Rohingya camps in Ukhia and Teknaf mostly around 7:00am. Similarly, they leave around 3:00pm for Cox’s Bazar town. In both cases, movement of people becomes difficult due mainly to the heavy traffic emanating from pressure of NGO workers’ luxury cars, jeeps and other vehicles on several roads in Cox’s Bazar and other areas surrounding the Rohingya camps. Kalatali Bus Terminal Road, the tourist area of Cox’s Bazar is often suffers from heavy traffic jam much like staying stuck on the busy roads of the capital city. Most vehicles include luxury cars, jeeps, microbuses or Pajeros with almost every vehicle carrying logos of different local and international NGOs.
However, despite the reduction in allocations, the luxurious life of NGO officials is going on. A significant portion of the charitable money is being spent on 1,300 foreigners (1,000 from the United Nations and 300 from other agencies) and their 600 vehicles according to a media report. The Bureau of NGO Affairs in Bangladesh banned activities of 41 NGOs in Rohingya camps in March 2018 following allegations against the NGOs.
On the basis of the report of the intelligence agency, a letter was sent to the NGO bureau from the Ministry of Home Affairs objecting to the activities of these NGOs. In this situation, these NGOs did not get any new approval for spending in Rohingya camps. However, these NGOs are still carrying out various activities in the Rohingya camps with different names. Although not allocated, they are running some programs of other NGOs.
QUESTION OVER NGOS’ ROLE
The role of NGOs was also questioned at a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Law and Order at the Home Ministry in March 2019. Citing intelligence agencies, the committee said at the time that threequarters of foreign NGOs’ allocations for Rohingya refugees were being spent on their staff. In just six months, NGO officials have spent Tk 150 crore on hotel bills and Tk 8 crore on flats for them. Following the recent failure of Rohingya repatriation, the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs said that the activities of some NGOs have become an obstacle for Rohingya repatriation. They also have recommended identifying those NGOs. Asked if three-fourths of the NGO’s allocations were being spent on its staff coming to Bangladesh, the NGO’s coordination body, ISCG, declined to comment.
However, despite so many allegations against NGOs, the agencies responsible for curbing them are still indifferent. Former Commissioner of Refugee Relief and Repatriation Mohammad Abul Kalam once told the media, “We have heard about the controversial role of NGOs working with the Rohingya. But precisely we have not yet got the list of any NGO. I am looking into the matter. If the allegation against someone is proved, I will definitely take action.”Additional Deputy Commissioner (Revenue), who is in charge of overseeing the activities of NGOs in Cox’s Bazar, said they are seriously investigating the Rohingya repatriation and the allegations against NGOs in general. Strict action will be taken against the responsible NGOs. He said that the officials are also investigating the financial accounts of the organizations, alleging that a large part of the money coming for the Rohingyas was spent on luxuries by the officials. The allegations have been strictly monitored since. In addition, several NGOs in Islamic countries, including Turkey, have been accused of secretly operating in Rohingya camps. There are also allegations of spreading extremism against these banned NGOs. Although the administration has occasionally launched operations to stop the activities of these NGOs run by some local people, the activities have not stopped fully.
Meanwhile, not only NGOs around the camp, but also local influential people including Rohingya leaders have formed business syndicates. A section of Rohingya has become strong through various activities including trade and commerce. As the financial strength of some Rohingyas has increased, so has the friendship with local influential people. Large markets can now be seen in the Rohingya camps. The goods are smuggled from Myanmar and sold here. Besides, a local gang is using Rohingyas to carry out various activities including drug trafficking. Nur Mohammad Sikder, one of the leaders of the Rohingya Repatriation Struggle Committee in Ukhia, said that in order to repatriate, the movement and the way of earnings must be stopped outside the camps, and the NGOs activities must be monitored and controlled.
Professor Mohammad Kamal Uddin, former chairman of the Department of International Relations at Chittagong University, told the media that the Rohingya economy was one of the reasons why repatriation was not successful. Many economic interests are involved with the long stay of Rohingyas in this country. In particular, the funds of several NGOs, the salaries of the workers and their career depend on the stay of the Rohingyas. If the Rohingyas leave, these facilities will be closed for them. In addition, many local beneficiaries are becoming rich overnight by engaging in various misdeeds including yaba business with Rohingyas. They are not seeking repatriation of Rohingyas. They are persuading Rohingyas not to return to Myanmar.
In fine, national and international organisations are not doing what they should do to treat Rohingyas reasonably and sympathetically. On the contrary, they are giving various suggestions to Bangladesh for the establishment of human rights and fundamental rights of Rohingyas. Bangladesh’s initiative to relocate 100,000 Rohingyas from the Cox’s Bazar camp to Bhasan Char was not well received at first by the national and international organizations including the UN.
Now again, they are saying that Cox’s Bazar should also ensure facilities like Bhasan Char. Internationally, the UN, USA and other major powers still remain a bit far from the repatriation process due to the inclusion of China alone. Thus, from the beginning, the focus of various domestic and international organizations and powerful states was to improve the quality of life of the Rohingyas who took refuge in Bangladesh rather than being involved in repatriation negotiations. Thus, Rohingya repatriation has not seen any light yet. It is quite clear that Rohingyas will stay in Bangladesh for a long time as long as the national and international organizations and the major powers do not change their perspectives and come forward with a good-faith regarding repatriation.