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Bangladesh: Rising Rohingya Predicament – Analysis

Bangladesh: Rising Rohingya Predicament – Analysis

Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. The camp is one of three, which house up to 300,000 Rohingya people fleeing inter-communal violence in Myanmar. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

By Sanchita Bhattacharya*

On November 8, a Rohingya man, identified as Mohammed Selim, was killed in a gunfight between two groups of criminals in Teknaf sub-District of Cox's Bazar DistrictMohammed Selim lived in the Noapara Rohingya camp. 

On October 27, criminals shot dead two Rohingya men after picking them up from their homes in a refugee camp in the Ukhiya sub-District of Cox's Bazar DistrictThe deceased were identified as Ayat Ullah (40) and Mohammad Yeasin (30).

On October 18, a Rohingya youth, Syed Hossain was killed by miscreants at the Tajnimar Khola 19 camp in the Palangkhali Union of Ukhiya sub-District in Cox's Bazar.

On October 15, two Rohingya community leaders were stabbed to death by unknown assailants at the Balukhali refugee camp at Ukhiya, Cox's Bazar District. Mohammad Anwar, 38, and Mohammad Yunus, 35, were residents of Block-F at the camp. 

On October 4, Tasdia Akhter, an 11-year-old girl, was killed during a gunfight between unidentified gunmen and members of the Armed Police Battalion (APBn) at Block H-52 of the Moynarghona Rohingya camp No. 18 in the Palangkhali Union of Ukhiya sub-District, Cox's Bazar. 

On September 21, unidentified criminals killed a Rohingya man, identified as Jafar, (35), who was a volunteer guard in Block H-51 of Camp-18 in Ukhiya sub-District, Cox's Bazar District.

Since 2017, growing tensions in connection with inter-group and intra-group conflicts, as well as militant activities in the Rohingya refugee camps; mounting cases of drug trafficking; and worries of reduced aid due to decreasing international support, have increased the mistrust between the Rohingya and local Bangladeshis, causing serious concern.  

Though accurate data regarding fatalities is not available, according to partial data collated by the Institute for Conflict Management, 45 Rohingya criminals have been killed in intra-group clashes or by Security Forces in an around Rohingya refugee camps, in addition to another 15 militants and 25 civilians, in and around Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh since August 15, 2017.

The Rohingya refugee issue has often cropped up in the mainstream political discourse of Bangladesh in particular, and in the wider South Asia region in general, since August, 2017, when more than 725,000 Rohingyas fled Myanmar, to Bangladesh. On August 15, 2017, Muslim insurgents calling themselves the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) launch an assault on 30 Myanmar Police posts and an Army base in the north of the Rakhine State, 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. 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 October 2022, over 943,000 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 site, the Kutupalong-Balukhali Expansion Site.

Unlawful activities have been increasing in the refugee camps due to the growing and active presence of organized gangs. According to an August 11, 2022, report, Rohingyas had formed at least 20 organised armed gangs, presently active in the refugee camps, prominently including the ‘Salman Shah Group’, ‘Putia Group’, ‘Munna Group’, ‘Hakim Group’, and ‘Jokir Group’. The gangs were involved in serious crimes such as arms, drugs and human trafficking, gold smuggling, kidnapping, extortion and killing. They were also involved in robberies, burglaries, cybercrime, sexual harassment as well as illegal SIM card and the hundi (money laundering) trade, as well as grabbing lands from Bangladeshi citizens. These organised Rohingya armed groups also run juvenile gangs. 

Recent reports indicate that the crime rate in the camps is increasing drastically. In an August 22, 2022, report, Cox’s Bazar Police spokesperson Rafiqul Isla disclosed that, between August 25, 2017, and August 20, 2022, a total of 2,438 crimes had been registered in the Rohingya camps. These include 100 cases of murder – most of them carried out with knives or guns – 185 cases of possession of arms, 1,636 drug cases, 39 kidnappings, and 13 cases of attacks on Security Forces. A total of 5,226 refugees were charged for these crimes. Moreover, according to an October 1, 2021, report, criminal cases involving Rohingya refugees were increasing rapidly, with 75 cases in 2017; 208 in 2018; 263 in 2019; 184 in 2020; and 570 cases in the first eight months of 2021.

These gangs have created an alternate route for narcotics trafficking, particularly methamphetamine and Yaba tablets (a cocktail of methamphetamine and caffeine), through the Naikhyangchhari border in the Bandarban District, into the refugee camps, as the old Teknaf route has become difficult due to the ‘zero tolerance’ policy and vigilance of the Bangladeshi government. Significantly, on June 9, 2021, marking the first use of capital punishment under the 2018 Narcotics Control Act in Bangladesh, Mohammad Arif, a 28-year-old Rohingya resident of Kutapalong Camp 2 in the Ukhiya Sector of Cox’s Bazar, was sentenced to death by a lower court for the possession and smuggling of methamphetamine tablets. Although the charges brought against him would not normally warrant capital punishment, the Cox’s Bazar Additional District and Sessions Judge Abdullah Al Mamun made an exception, deeming Arif’s actions an attack on Bangladesh’s security interests. In the verdict, Al Mamun thus stated, “The defendant is a full grown, healthy, and normal person with discretion. He is fully aware of the provisions of Islam. Despite being sheltered in Bangladesh, the Rohingya Yabakarbari (Yaba trade) is trying to destroy the country by smuggling drugs.”

Apart from these criminal activities, ARSA, a virulent insurgent group based in Myanmar, is also finding its way into the refugee camps in Bangladesh. ARSA has created a group of at least 150 cadres inside the camps, and they were targeting Rohingya volunteers who were sharing information with the APBn of the Bangladesh Police and members of intelligence agencies about the movements and activities of the criminal gangs. On September 29, 2021, Rohingya leader and activist Mohib Ullah was brutally murdered at the Kutupalong camp, due to his ideological differences with, and protest against, ARSA. This was followed by a bloodbath unleashed by criminals on the Darul Ulum Nadwatul Ulama Al-Islamia Madrasa in Camp 18, with the killing of six Rohingyas, including madrasa chief Maulana Akiz, who also opposed ARSA.  Later, on March 5, 2022, APBn arrested Zakaria, the ‘chief commander’ of ARSA’s Ulama branch, from the Lambasia Rohingya refugee camp in Ukhiya. According to Superintendent of Police (SP) Naimul Haque, Zakaria issued the ‘fatwa’ for Mohib Ullah’s assassination.

Unsurprisingly, as reported on August 29, stating that the efforts of the Bangladesh government were underway to repatriate the Rohingya refugees, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal added that Army troops would be deployed in the refugee camps, if necessary, to prevent crimes and check smuggling of drugs into the country. The Home Minister added, "Mobile phones of the Rohingya refugees will be tracked so that they cannot commit any illegal activities." Regarding the government's efforts to resolve the Rohingya crisis, the Minister noted, "I hope the Rohingyas will be repatriated soon. Government's efforts are still on."

In the meantime, on October 17, a fresh batch of 963 Rohingyas reached Bhashan Char (an island in Noakhali District) in the 14th phase of resettlement within Bangladesh. With this, the total number of Rohingyas at the Bhashan Char reached 30,079, according to Lieutenant Hashem, in-charge of the Bhashan Char Rohingya Camp. In 2020, 306 Rohingyas who tried to go to Malaysia illegally by sea were rescued from the sea and taken to Bhashan Char. Many Rohingyas are not willing to settle on Bhashan Char, and reports indicate that some Rohingya drug cartels and extremist groups have taken a stand against repatriation to or rehabilitation in Bhasan Char, in order to keep their trafficking business alive.

The Rohingya refugees residing in Bangladesh are causing serious law and order problems. With the news of a fresh wave of violence between the Arakan Army and Myanmar’s military junta in the Rakhine province of Myanmar, the situation has become precarious, both in terms of the overflow of refugees as well as of diverse patterns of criminality and violence. In these circumstances, the pressure on the Bangladesh Government can only mount in view of the increasing criminal and terrorist activities emanating from the Rohingya refugee camps.

*Sanchita Bhattacharya
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management

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