At the refugee camps in the district of Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh, the Rohingya Muslims who fled Myanmar are now living in fear of repatriation. On 23 November last year, the two countries had signed an agreement to repatriate the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees that are currently residing in Bangladesh. Two months later, the countries agreed on a “physical arrangement” to facilitate the repatriation process, which was scheduled to be completed within two years. Bangladesh subsequently postponed the process indefinitely—Abul Kalam, the host country’s commissioner of refugee relief and rehabilitation in Cox’s Bazar, told me there was a lot of “preparatory work” remaining, including finalising the list of refugees to be sent back.
There is little certainty about when the repatriation process will begin, but the Rohingyas are fearful of what awaits them in Myanmar. A 22-year-old refugee told me that Myanmarese soldiers had murdered her family in front of her and then raped her. “I am afraid of repatriation,” she said, requesting that I withhold her name. “I survived once, this time they will kill all of us.” The fear of forced repatriation is reinforced by the apparent resentment brewing among the local Bangladeshis against the Rohingya community. Mizanur Rahman Milky, the joint secretary of the Tour Operator Owners Association of Cox’s Bazar, or TOAC—a collective of tourism agencies in the district—told me he believed that there were no longer any threats to the Rohingyas’ security in Myanmar. “Now the locals are saying enough is enough—it is the time Rohingya should go back to their country.”
Targeted attacks against the Rohingya Muslim community, which began in late August last year, resulted in the mass exodus of the community fromthe western province of Rakhine in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, into neighbouring Bangladesh. In December 2017, the Human Rights Watch published a report noting that the Myanmarese army had torched over 350 Rohingya villages, and Doctors Without Borders reported that at least 6,700 Rohingyas had been murdered in the violence. United Nations officials, in separate instances, have stated that Myanmar military’s operation “seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” and that it had the “hallmarks of a genocide.” The violent persecution of the community has forced around 700,000 Rohingyas to flee their homes into neighbouring Bangladesh.
The November agreement excluded the UN officials from participating in the proposed repatriation process, which led to protests from the Rohingya refugees, who argued that the violence against the community had not ended. In March this year, Andrew Gilmour, the UN’s assistant secretary-general for human rights, noted: “The nature of the violence has changed from the frenzied blood-letting and mass rape of last year to a lower intensity campaign of terror and forced starvation.” On 29 March, the Bangladeshi state minister for foreign affairs stated that the UN had confirmed that Myanmar had engaged the UNHCR for the repatriation process.
“Bullets were falling like rain,” the 22-year-old refugee said, recalling the situation when she fled her hometown, in the village of Tula Tuli in the Rakhine province, on 30 August last year. I met her in January 2018, at a makeshift camp in Kutupalong, situated around 40 kilometres from the Cox’s Bazar town. Though it had been five months since the attack, her jaw still appeared wounded—she told me she had been eating only khichri since she fled her home because she was unable to chew solid food. On the day of the attack, the 22-year-old recalled, she saw around 500 people storming Tula Tuli and indiscriminately attacking the Rohingya villagers with guns and machetes. She said that these included members of the Tatmadaw—the official name for the Myanmarese armed forces—personnel from the border security unit of the country’s police force called the Border Guard Police, and local Rakhine villagers. “I rushed out of the house carrying my daughter and began to run aimlessly, but the soldiers trapped hundreds of us on the large bank of the river, which surrounds the village on three sides.” She added that the Tatmadaw soldiers then separated the men from the women and “shot the men one after another.”
According to the 22-year-old, while some soldiers confined the women, others dug deep pits near the river with the help of the local Rakhine villagers, and dumped the dead bodies inside them. Soon after, she said, thick smoke rose from the pits as the stench of burning flesh filled the air. A group of soldiers then turned towards the women and their children, and “grabbed the children and tossed them into the burning pits.” The 22-year-old refugee began wailing as she spoke. “My 16-month-old daughter was burnt alive among a pile of corpses in one of those pits.”
“I could hear the screaming of my daughter from the pit when soldiers pushed me along with six other women to a bamboo house. Inside the house, one of the soldiers tore apart my clothes, snatched my jewellery and pushed me on the ground,” she continued. “He beat me up and raped me in front of my mother-in-law and sister-in-law—while they were standing close by, crying and waiting for their turn. When I tried to shove off the soldier, he hit my head with some heavy object and I lost consciousness.”
The December 2017 report by Human Rights Watch examined the atrocities committed in Tula Toli. The report, titled, “Massacre by the River: Burmese Army Crimes against Humanity in Tula Toli,” stated that the Myanmarese “security forces killed several hundred Rohingya villagers in Tula Toli on 30 August.” It further noted that the HRW “interviewed nine women and girls who said soldiers raped or sexually assaulted them” and that “these survivors said they also saw other women and girls being raped by soldiers.” The report unequivocally states that the actions of Myanmar’s military “amount to crimes against humanity.”
According to Chowdhury Rafiqul Abrar, a professor of international relations at the University of Dhaka, who has conducted extensive research on the Rohingya refugee crisis, the Myanmarese authorities are not in “any serious mood” to consider the demands of the refugee leadership. He described the conditions the Rohingya are facing in Myanmar as “barbaric.” He added, “Sending the people back under the same regime—it will be like the survivors of Holocaust being sent back to Germany where Nazis are in power.”
“I don’t want to go back to Myanmar … I want justice,” the 22-year-old told me. “If I go there, memories of my family will kill me.”
The Kutupalong-Balukhali site accommodates over 600,000 refugees. According to UN estimates, it is the largest and most densely populated refugee settlement in the world. The settlement looks like a city of bamboo huts—an overwhelming labyrinth of makeshift dwellings. Reaching the site required a difficult trek through unkempt crude stairs that had been carved out of sandy hills, which were once covered with vegetation. Life at the camps for the Rohingya refugees has been difficult—food and proper shelter are not easy to come by and the sites are heavily congested, forcing families to build their houses wherever they could find land. This had led to several makeshift houses being built on steep hillsides, which could get washed away in landslides during the monsoon season.
During the initial days of the Rohingya influx into Cox’s Bazar, the Bangladeshi residents from the district’s Ukhiya and Teknaf localities were among the first to provide food and shelter to the refugees. In the subsequent months, several national and international organisations established their offices in Cox’s Bazar for relief operations. But this spirit of care and cooperation appears to have run its course—conversations with the Bangladeshi residents of the area revealed a growing resentment towards the Rohingya community.
Several factors appeared to have created this environment of increasing apathy. These include shrinking opportunities for daily labour for the locals, since the Rohingyas are forced to accept lower wages; rising prices of transport and essential commodities, which the locals attributed to the influx of refugees; and the perception that international NGOs are only serving the Rohingyas and ignoring the poverty-stricken Bangladeshi populace.
On their part, several members of the Rohingya community told me that they had been facing difficulties in finding jobs. This was compounded by restrictions and obstacles imposed by the Bangladeshi government. For instance, the government has set up several checkpoints around the refugee camps, manned by Bangladeshi police and paramilitary forces, to prevent the Rohingya population from illegally leaving the refugee camps and entering Bangladesh. Moreover, the government had also directed NGO workers to leave the camp by 5 pm. Since the NGOs at the camps were unable to provide jobs for everyone, several refugees told me they would leave the camps secretly, evading police check posts, and work illegally in different places across Bangladesh.
This has caused friction between the Rohingya and the local Bangladeshi communities. In the last week of January, the Rohingya Resistance Committee, an organisation that is opposed to the integration of the refugee community into Bangladesh, organised a protest meeting against the increasing Rohingya influx and presence in the district. Over 100 people attended the meeting, which took place in Ukhiya Upzila market, most of them students and local shopkeepers. The protestors were addressing concerns of unemployment, rising prices and security concerns. One protestor claimed that the community was engaged in “drug smuggling.” Jasimuddin Chaudhry, a local journalist who assisted in organising the meeting, said, “The international NGOs are conspiring against the repatriation and dissuading the Rohingya from returning to Myanmar.”
Mohiuddin, a 22-year-old student of Ukhiya University College, who attended the protest meeting, told me that the students were angry because the international NGOs were not hiring residents of Cox’s Bazar. Instead, he said, “the NGOs brought their workforce employed at their headquarters in Dhaka or hired workers from the Rohingya community inside the camp.” These sort of small-scale protests have become increasingly frequent in Cox’s Bazar.
Among the Rohingyas, there appeared to be mixed opinions about whether the Bangladeshi government would repatriate the refugees. Some had high praise for the government’s humanitarian support.Several refugees believed the Bangladeshi government would not send them back to Myanmar forcefully. “Bangladesh is our mother and guardian, which will stand for us in UN to get our rights,” Amin, a local community leader within the Rohingyas in the Kutupalong camp, who appeared to be in his mid-40s, told me.
Amin appeared convinced that the Bangladesh government would not forcefully repatriate the refugees, and that they would be sent back “with dignity and rights.” He believed that the Bangladeshi locals’ would remain tolerant of the Rohingyas if the international organisations provided them support as well. “As we are getting support from NGOs, if the local people also get assistance from NGOs, then the mentality will not change.” He added, “In a family, if the parents like you, the other family member can’t do anything—if the Bangladeshi government likes us, the local people can’t do anything.”
But this confidence was not shared by all the Rohingya refugees. In a tiny shack—a black tarpaulin sheet spread on top of bamboo sticks—in Kutupalong, I met a few elderly Rohingya men, who agreed to speak to me only on the condition of anonymity. “The Bangladeshi intelligence people are roaming in the camps,” a 65-year-old man said, looking around nervously as he spoke. “If they see us talking to media, we’ll face persecution.”
According to him, voluntary repatriation was a “farce.” “They always lie about the voluntary repatriation, it’s not true. I was sent back to Myanmar in 1995—that was forceful repatriation.” (In the early 1990s, around 200,000 Rohingya refugees had fled to Bangladesh alleging circumstances of religious persecution, forced labour and mass rape by the Myanmarese army. In the following years, the UNHCR conducted a repatriation programme with the two governments, but there were concerns that the repatriation programme had been forceful.) “We are very much afraid that it’ll be a forceful repatriation like before,” he added. “If the government sees someone opposing repatriation, they will involve them in fabricated cases. The local people can also beat them and finally they have to agree to go back to Myanmar.”
The 65-year-old told me that the Bangladeshi’s “love and respect” for the Rohingyas was now dipping. “The local people are very concerned, and they are also jealous because we get relief materials for free.” Meghna Guhathakurta, the executive director of Research Initiatives, Bangladesh, a non-profit that conducts programmes aimed at poverty alleviation in Bangladesh, referred to this hostility as well. “Some Rohingyas trying to make some money to buy fish or something from the local market, sell the rice they receive as relief support, and it upsets the local rice-growing farmers.”
Afsan Chowdhury, a political observer and senior journalist based in Bangladesh, told me that the rising resentment was a result of the economic stress faced by the Bangladeshi locals in Cox’s Bazar and the surrounding districts. “When locals saw that they are poor and they are working hard to earn their livelihood, and on the other hand, the Rohingya who doesn’t do anything still get food, this fuels the resentment,” Chowdhury said. “Up to a point they can be kind, and they are no longer kind after that.”
A 70-year-old refugee—one of the men that I met at the shack—told me that he had been staying in registered Rohingya camps in Bangladesh for 26 years. “Like in Myanmar, we are not allowed to move freely—we are facing the same kind of rules and regulations here,” he said. “Rohingya doesn’t know what is freedom—is it a flag? Is it a paper? Is it a smell? What exactly is freedom?”
Aaquib Khan is a Mumbai-based media professional. He tweets as @kaqibb.