Updated at 11:07 p.m. EST on 2019-09-06
Bangladesh is taking tough measures to contain an increase in violence in Rohingya refugee camps after the crisis over the mass exodus of the persecuted group from Myanmar entered its third year.
Describing the violence in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps as a security threat, officials have banned cell phone use and restricted internet access, and are considering erecting barbed wire around the settlements to regulate the movement of their 1.2 million inhabitants.
In the absence of any immediate repatriation of refugees back to Myanmar, the authorities are also giving serious attention to a previously announced plan to move some of the refugee population to a flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal, despite objections from international aid groups.
Officials are reacting to incidents of violence involving Rohingya and an Aug. 25 rally that drew thousands of the refugees who marked the second anniversary of attacks by the Myanmar government that forced them to flee from the Rakhine state.
“Two years have elapsed since the Rohingya entered Bangladesh. Allowing the Rohingya to remain would create security threats in Bangladesh and beyond,” Faruk Khan, chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on foreign affairs, told BenarNews.
Earlier this week, a parliamentary defense panel termed the Muslim-minority Rohingya refugees as a security threat and asked the government to restrict their movement.
Khan, a retired military colonel, said the defense panel, of which he is also a member, had recommended erecting a barbed wire fence around refugee camps in Ukhia and Teknaf, sub-districts of Cox’s Bazar.
“Many of the Rohingya have been fleeing the camps. So, we recommended to confine them,” he said.
The latest violence in Cox’s Bazar broke out on Aug. 22, when gunmen, suspected to be Rohingya men, gunned down a youth wing official of the ruling Awami League party.
The killing of Omar Faruk near his residence in Teknaf, the southernmost sub-district of Bangladesh, triggered protests the next day, with participants blocking the Cox’s Bazar-Teknaf highway for three hours, and vandalizing shops and houses inside a Rohingya camp, local media reported.
In a follow up operation, police shot and killed two Rohingya suspects in what they described as a “shootout” near a refugee camp in Teknaf, according to Pradip Kumar Das, officer-in-charge of Teknaf police station.
Md Iqbal Hossain, the additional superintendent of police in Cox’s Bazar, said violence in the area had increased since the influx of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing a brutal crackdown, which began in August 2017 in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Many of the Rohingya have been involved in the smuggling of drugs, especially yaba, a mixture of methamphetamine and caffeine, he said.
“The personal enmity among the Rohingya is very high. Very often they lock in internecine conflicts. The Rohingya criminals killed ruling party leader Faruk. This killing angered the local people about the Rohingya refugees,” he said.
As part of its crackdown, the government suspended the operation of 41 NGOs working at the refugee camps and the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission asked telecom companies to cut back on internet services near the camps.
Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen told reporters that some NGOs had been provoking the Rohingya to not go back to Myanmar.
Several repatriation attempts by Myanmar and Bangladesh governments have failed. The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, said that none of those interviewed among the 3,450 people cleared for repatriation in the most recent attempt were willing to go back to Myanmar because they were concerned over their security.
Myanmar considers Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, denies them citizenship and subjects them to systematic discrimination including a failure to recognize their ethnicity.
Momen said the NGOs that were suspended had also played a role in a mammoth protest rally on Aug. 25. It marked the second anniversary of the Myanmar military crackdown that included killings, torture, rape and village burning and forced more than 720,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.
“The NGOs provided banners, t-shirts and other logistics to hold the rally. Any NGOs and agency proved to have campaigned against repatriation would face actions,” he said.
In addition, Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) chairman Jahurul Haque told BenarNews the Rohingya were not entitled to mobile phones or the internet.
“So, we have asked the companies to stop the sale of SIM cards to the Rohingya and snap internet service at night,” he said.
Bangladesh officials were also caught by surprise over the turnout at the Aug. 25 Rohingya rally attended by tens of thousands who made various demands for their return to Myanmar.
The intelligence failure has also led to a shakeup in security measures at the camps.
“The RRRC (refugee relief and repatriation commissioner) knew about the rally, but neither the disaster management ministry nor the ministry of foreign affairs was informed,” Enamur Rahman, state minister for disaster management, told BenarNews. “The government is embarrassed by the rally.”
The inter-ministry National Task Force on Rohingya met on Aug. 28 to discuss it and asked for a review of refugee camp operations in Ukhia and Teknaf.
Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Muhammad Abul Kalam and three camp officers have since been reassigned. The government did not release details of their new roles.
“The government can withdraw anyone. This is an ongoing process,” Kalam said on Thursday, his last day at his office in Cox’s Bazar.
Meanwhile, the foreign minister said Bangladesh was prepared to move 100,000 Rohingya to Bhashan Char, a flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal. The government constructed housing and infrastructure as well as a retaining wall to protect it from flooding.
In an exclusive interview with Deutsche Welle media, Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen said the move was being considered because the U.N. had not stepped up efforts to push Myanmar to allow the Rohingya to repatriate.
“They [U.N. officials] should go to Myanmar, especially to Rakhine state, to create conditions that could help these refugees to go back to their country. The U.N. is not doing the job that we expect them to do,” Momen said in the interview.
He also said Bangladesh officials were hoping that 100,000 Rohingya would relocate to Bhashan Char voluntarily.
“The island offers economic activities to the refugees. But the aid agencies working in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp don’t want to move to Bhashan Char. In Cox’s Bazar, they stay in five-star hotels, so they don’t want to go to another place,” he said in the interview.
Late Friday (Washington time), Human Rights Watch issued a statement calling on Bangladesh's government to end its restrictions on the movements of Rohingya refugees and their access to the internet.
“Bangladesh authorities have a major challenge in dealing with such a large number of refugees, but they have made matters worse by imposing restrictions on refugee communications and freedom of movement,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for the New York-based rights watchdog. “The authorities should take a level-headed approach instead of overreacting to tensions and protests by isolating Rohingya refugees in camps.”
“Bangladesh authorities and the local community are understandably frustrated that there is no end in sight to the Rohingya refugee crisis,” he added. “But they should direct their ire at the Myanmar army and government, which caused the problem, instead of taking it out on refugees.”