After a year that has seen them subjected to a brutal Burmese military crackdown described as “ethnic cleansing” by the UN and US, Rohingya Muslim refugees face the prospect of a concerning new development in 2018 across the border in Bangladesh.
Conditions in the camps of Cox’s Bazar continue to deteriorate as more Rohingya arrive, and those trapped here have one of two grim options for the future.
In the past weeks, Bangladesh and the Burmese government have assembled a working group to arrange the repatriation of Rohingyas back across the border, which – if forced – international observers say would be unsafe. At the same time, refugees fear being stuck for many years to come in the camps which have ballooned to rank among the biggest in the world.
And in a new development along the border, goodwill from local Bangladeshi communities towards their embattled fellow Muslims is being stretched to the limit. Tensions are building over land and wages, while refugees desperate for cash to buy daily necessities are exposed to exploitation by landowners.
The Independent has found Rohingya boys as young as 14 are working from dawn to dusk in rice fields outside the makeshift settlements of Cox’s Bazar for as little as 300 taka (less than £3) a day, about half the normal local wage.
“I arrived in September,” says Awaz, a 15-year-old from Maungdaw township, just across the border in Burma’s western state of Rakhine. “The military came and opened fire so we fled leaving everything behind,” says the boy, who stays over the road in a plastic tent in Thangkhali camp, with his parents, in their thirties, and five brothers.
“Back home we had our own land,” he adds.
The latest UN figures suggest an exodus of 655,000 people has taken place across Burma’s northwest border in just four months. After abandoning burning villages, their crops and livelihoods, the refugees have settled along the hilly borders of Cox’s Bazar district – on land belonging to locals.
The building tension is piling pressure on the Bangladeshi authorities, who are mindful of the clashes that were sparked in the early Nineties when a more modest influx of fewer than 300,000 Rohingyas crossed the border. Then they were also fleeing persecution in Burma and, again, faced forced repatriation and poor conditions in Bangladesh.
According to NGOs working in the area today, Rohingyas are increasingly vulnerable to exploitation by landowners while the massive influx is forcing poor Bangladeshi labourers out of work.
“Now there are so many Rohingyas that we are not getting any work,” says 60-year old Aminah Khatun. “We used to get some 500-600 taka, but they are much cheaper,” she says. “And the prices of food, fruit and vegetables have almost doubled. We used to pay 1,200 taka for a sack of rice, now it’s 2,000.”
As the humanitarian crisis nears its fourth month, a preliminary agreement between Bangladesh and Burma to repatriate “expeditiously” the Rohingya is setting nerves on edge among the refugees who fear they will have no guarantees for their safety, or equal rights with the Buddhist majority in Rakhine.
Bangladesh’s government announced late on Friday that it had prepared a list of 100,000 Rohingya refugees to be repatriated in a first phase. Burmese officials will now consider the list, and both sides say people will only be moved willingly.
But many Rohingya remain terrified the Burmese military will force them into detention camps, alongside some 120,000 in central Rakhine who were driven out of their villages following intercommunal violence five years ago.
The local community in Cox’s Bazar has so far sympathised with the plight of the Rohingyas. But while some have taken economic advantage of the situation, others ask when the repatriation process will start, even as refugees continue to arrive.
“They tell us that they’d been persecuted by the Buddhists at home, that we are Muslims like them and have to help them,” says Aminah. There is no resentment in her voice, but with no short-term solutions on the horizon, she hopes they will go back home soon.
In camps such as Unchinprang water shortages at the beginning of the dry season mean more wells are needed. NGOs have to bargain with locals and pay rent as the camps keep expanding.
“At the beginning, the owners of the land were asking for money to buy the land from them for some $50 and relatives in Malaysia would send us money. Now the military has forbidden this but the owners complain because people forage in the forest and cut trees for fuel to cook,” explains Safil, a Rohingya in Kutupalong camp. The overcrowded hills were covered with trees just a few months ago, he adds.
The influx of aid following the extraordinary humanitarian effort of the past months is also contributing to the bubbling resentment. As across the border in Burma when foreign aid was first delivered in the 1990s to Rohingyas, the local community feels left out.
Even the older Rohingya settlers who fled in the past decades are afraid of losing support and land.
“We appreciate the pressure of having almost one million refugees in a poor country that needs help,” says Mohammed Abu Asaker, UNHCR spokesperson in Cox’s Bazar. “This is why we try to help the local community as well, providing medical facilities for locals for example,” he says. He points out that when there are so many refugees, locals are exposed to illnesses as well.
But UNHCR also notes that the Rohingya are refugees because they crossed the border out of fear of their lives. “It’s not early to talk about repatriation but the situation in Burma is not conducive for people to go back. We strongly recommend no one goes back unless the root causes of the problem, including citizenship and promoting integration instead of confining them in camp, have been addressed,” the spokesperson says.
UNHCR also confirms that with the end of the rainy season, smugglers are approaching Rohingyas in the camps who want to risk the dangerous and illegal journey by boat to Thailand or Malaysia. Thousands are believed to have lost their lives at sea in 2015 when a crackdown by Thai authorities led smugglers to abandon their human cargo at sea.
Rights activists note that the repatriation agreement, which the two governments are still working out, is likely to exclude many Rohingya as Burma insists on evidence of their former residency.
“The truth is that the implementation of the agreement is unlikely and many would not meet the requirements anyway,” says Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, an NGO advocating for the rights of the Rohingya for almost two decades. Many refugees fled without documents or do not speak the national Burmese language. “It is not clear what will happen to those who don’t meet the requirements,” Ms Lewa adds.
But among the tents packed into Kutupalong camp, many Rohingya men say they have to get out. “I will never stay here. I want to leave. I hope to get a fake passport and go,” says Safil, father of two children.
(c) 2017 The Independant