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Keeping tensions at bay in Rohingya tent city

Huge refugee influx into Bangladeshi camps has hiked living costs, stressed environment

Few people walk into a refugee camp expecting to live there forever. Certainly not Ms Roshida Begum, who fled Myanmar some 25 years ago at the age of 11. Its military regime then was trying to relocate her Rohingya Muslim village, and those who objected were arrested. The luckier ones - like her father - were freed after torture. The unlucky ones - like her uncle - were never found again.

In the security of Bangladesh's Kutupalong refugee camp, Ms Begum grew up, got married and raised three children. Then, over the past month, she found herself sharing her family's earthen-floored, tarpaulin-roofed shack with 13 desperate new arrivals.

"I hope my grandson might eventually see my homeland," Ms Begum tells The Straits Times with wry optimism.

But the outlook is grim in south-eastern Bangladesh, where half a million Rohingya have poured in from Myanmar over the last month. An insurgent attack in Myanmar's Rakhine state on Aug 25 had triggered a military backlash that the United Nations says amounts to ethnic cleansing.

Swathes of Rohingya villages have been burnt to the ground - an act which Naypyitaw blames on the Rohingya and militants, but which eyewitnesses say security forces and local ethnic Rakhines are responsible for.

There used to be about 1.2 million Rohingya in Myanmar, but the country rejects them as illegal "Bengali" migrants.

New Rohingya refugee arrivals to Cox's Bazar have to make do with the landslide-prone grounds.
New Rohingya refugee arrivals to Cox's Bazar have to make do with the landslide-prone grounds. ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

Bangladesh, which was already sheltering 330,000 Rohingya refugees before the latest influx, now has more than 800,000 of them. This makes its beach-lined district of Cox's Bazar likely the largest refugee settlement in the world. Uganda's Bidi Bidi, one of the largest such places around, shelters just over 270,000 people fleeing South Sudan's civil war. Kenya's Dadaab refugee complex, another sprawling site, houses about 240,000 Somalis.

The massive and sudden influx into Cox's Bazar has hiked living costs and stressed the environment. Groundwater levels have dropped. Paddy fields have been trampled upon as the refugees hunt for space to set up shelter. Between the official camps of Kutupalong and Nayapara, basic shelters of bamboo and tarpaulin have been carved into surrounding hillocks, forming cascading clusters of tents vulnerable to collapse in the next thunderstorm.

While government and aid agencies race to erect better shelters on some 800ha of new land, groups of bedraggled women and children huddle by the roadside, running after any vehicle that resembles an aid delivery truck.

Armed Bangladeshi soldiers hem the refugees into the southern half of the district, away from the resorts and white-sand beaches that make Cox's Bazar one of the country's most popular attractions.

"Right now, the local community is very welcoming," Dr Muhammad Musa, executive director of Brac, a Bangladeshi non-governmental organisation, tells The Straits Times.

"We must maintain that harmony. If it is not managed properly, there will be chaos, confusion and conflict," he adds.

Brac has been working with both the locals and refugees in Cox's Bazar for more than 30 years. Dr Musa knows of earlier batches of Rohingya refugees who have offered their labour for half the normal price in the district's salt fields or on fishing boats owned by local businessmen.

"These people from Myanmar can afford it because they are getting supplementary support from aid agencies," he says, adding that some fights between Rohingya and local residents have broken out.

  • Myanmar, Bangladesh to coordinate repatriation of Rohingya

  • DHAKA • A senior Myanmar minister has proposed taking back the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who have fled across the border after a military crackdown, Bangladesh said, but gave no details of how the huge task could be achieved.

    Bangladesh Foreign Minister A. H. Mahmood Ali yesterday held talks in Dhaka with a representative of Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Minister of the Office of State Counsellor Kyaw Tint Swe, and said the two countries had agreed to set up a working group to coordinate the repatriation of the Rohingya.

    "The talks were held in a friendly atmosphere and Myanmar has made a proposal to take back the Rohingya refugees," Mr Ali told reporters.

    Ms Suu Kyi, who has been severely criticised for her failure to curb the military crackdown on the Rohingya, had said in a speech last month that Myanmar would take back "verified" refugees.

    This would be done according to the criteria set by the two countries in 1993, when tens of thousands of Rohingya were repatriated, she said.

    Mr Ali gave no timeframe for repatriation and did not say whether Myanmar would also take back the 300,000 Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh during earlier violence.

    He said the refugees would be verified by the joint working group, with the United Nations not involved.

    There was no immediate comment from Mr Swe, Ms Suu Kyi's representative.

    The Rohingya, a Muslim minority, do not qualify for Myanmar citizenship.

    It remains unclear where the Rohingya would go if they were to return, since many of their villages have been torched. In a speech to the UN General Assembly last month, Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina proposed creating UN-supervised safe zones inside Myanmar to protect them.


Local politician Nurul Absar Chowdhury navigates these tensions gingerly.

"This is a poor community," he tells The Straits Times from his home in Balukhali village, just 200m away from the muddy makeshift settlements. He avoids hiring Rohingya for his shrimp fry and sand harvesting businesses.

"I can't do that because I'm elected by the people here," he says. "If I do, these people will mind."

Between 1993 and 2005, Bangladesh repatriated some 230,000 Rohingya to Myanmar under conditions which human rights groups allege involved coercion.

Few aid workers will openly admit it, but many expect the latest Rohingya refugees to be marooned in Cox's Bazar for the long haul.

A Myanmar minister yesterday visited Dhaka to discuss repatriation arrangements. But nationalistic sentiments are brewing in Myanmar, where most of the Buddhist majority population have little regard for the Rohingya.

While international media attention has been focused on murders, gang rapes and arson that the Rohingya say were committed by Myanmar's military, state media has homed in on atrocities that the Myanmar government pins on the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa), which staged the Aug 25 attack. Arsa is now being blamed for killing Hindus in Rakhine state.

Reports of militants hiding among the refugees in Cox's Bazar have tainted any discussion of the civilians' return.

Meanwhile, ethnic Rakhines in Rakhine state - one of the poorest sections of Myanmar - bear a jaundiced view of international aid, which they feel has been unfairly directed at the more than 100,000 Rohingya forced to live in basic camps ever since they were displaced by communal violence there in 2012.

When asked about the situation in Cox's Bazar, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Vivian Tan stresses the importance of introducing aid that can benefit both the refugees and host communities, like building roads and wells that are accessible to all.

The UN has estimated that aid for Rohingya will cost US$200 million (S$272 million) just for six months. Donor support over the long term is not guaranteed.

In the longer run, the UNHCR supports the idea of self-reliance, though this may raise the hackles of the local community.

"Having the legal right to work is an important component of self-reliance," Ms Tan says. "This is something we will need to explore with the authorities in a way that addresses local needs once the humanitarian situation of the new arrivals stabilises."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2017, with the headline 'Keeping tensions at bay in Rohingya tent city'. Subscribe