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Is Bangladesh getting tired of hosting Rohingya refugees?

Sam Jahan
February 1, 2023

2023 marks the sixth anniversary of the mass exodus of 740,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar to Bangladesh. With no solution for finding the refugees a permanent home, the host community's patience is wearing thin.

Hundreds of Rohingya people crossing Bangladesh's border after crossing the Naf River
Refugee camps in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar house more than 1 million minority Rohingya who fled across the Naf River from neighboring Myanmar Image: KM Asad/ZUMAPRESS/picture alliance

In 2017, Bangladesh welcomed fellow Muslims from Myanmar's troubled Rakhine state to the southern coastal community of Cox's Bazar with open arms, food and shelter.

Despite the presence of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya in the already overcrowded settlements for decades, they didn't have to think twice about accommodating the new surge of people, albeit into an already overcrowded area of Bangladesh.

Attempts to repatriate the Rohingya refugees have failed due to unstable conditions in Myanmar. As such, they have become victims of the worst refugee crisis in the last 50 years .

In 1971, some 10 million East Pakistanis sought refuge in India during Bangladesh's independence war against Pakistan. But unlike the Rohingya, they returned home within nine months.

"The conflicts between the host community and Rohingya refugees are increasing; they are frequently getting involved into conflicts these days," according to Imran Hossain, government administrator for Ukhiya town which hosts one of the world's largest refugee camps.

People in a refugee camp in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar
Women and children suffer the most among camp residents who have limited access to food and clean waterImage: Guven Yilmaz/AA/picture alliance

Farmland turned into barren swamp

Abdur Rashid used to be an affluent landlord in southeastern Bangladesh. He allowed refugees to stay next to his land when they arrived in August 2017. Now he walks past his once-agricultural land, angry and frustrated because it has since been transformed into a barren swamp full of polythene, excrement and mosquitoes next to Cox's Bazar's sprawling Balukhali camp.

The 72-year-old retired farmer blames refugees for "ruining" his 10-acre plot of land.

"This land was so fertile. We used to harvest paddies twice in a year that fed my family well," he said.

"Look what they have done!" Rashid yelled, shaking in anger and breaking down in tears.

But life is also tough for the refugees.

With no scope of regular work, movement and meaningful education, 1 million refugees see no future, explained Rohingya community leader Abu Jafar.

"It only makes sense how easy it has become these days to exploit fit-but-jobless Rohingya youths for organized crimes," he told DW, referring to crimes ranging from  methamphetamine pill trafficking to murders.

Graphic showing Rohingya camps in Bangladesh

'Stealing jobs'

Salam Mia is a Tuk-Tuk driver in Cox's Bazar's Ukhiya area who usually rents a rickshaw to earn a living. But in the last few years, he's had to deal with fresh competition for work.

"If I delay reaching the garage, then I don't get to rent a rickshaw that day. Which means I cannot buy food for my children," the 25-year-old father of three said.

"Why? Because a Rohingya driver probably would have booked it paying more rent! These refugees are literally kicking on our stomach by stealing our jobs."

The standard salary for a Bangladeshi farmhand is 600 taka (just over €5; $5.6) per day when Rohingya men offer the same job for half the price, according to a local mason.

"Even construction shroffs from nearby towns often take truck loads of Rohingya workers for masonry work," the mason said, on condition of anonymity.

Syed Harunur Rashid, a police officer at the camp, admitted that it's "easy for the refugees" to sneak past the police in the hilly terrain.

"They cut down the barbed wire at over 160 places and created passages to the outer world," he told DW.

A Rohingya refugee drives a tuk-tuk in a refugee camp in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar
There has been increased competition for business among Tuk-Tuk drivers in Cox's BazarImage: Guven Yilmaz/AA/picture alliance

Extremism, oppression and narcotics

Mohammad Shahjahan, a 13-year-old Rohingya refugee from the Leda camp, was badly injured by a pellet which had been shot from a homemade gun by suspected drug traffickers. His was accused of being a drug mule, a charge he denies.

A few of Mohammad's friends went missing from the refugee settlement. Days later, their decomposed corpses were seen floating in the Naf river which divides Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Drug cartels in Bangladesh's coastal town of Teknaf are suspected of using Rohingya youths as lieutenants and drug mules. The narcotic traffickers have turned to violence and kidnappings.

In late December, armed Rohingya men abducted eight Bangladeshi farmers. Four days later, they were returned only after paying a hefty ransom of 640,000 taka.

"Families of these poor farmers had to borrow money with huge interest to pay the ransom," local councilor Rashed Mahmud Ali said.

Law enforcement agencies also claimed that groups of Islamist extremists are trying to set up a base inside the camp.

Last week, the elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) exchanged fire with suspected extremists in Kutupalong refugee camp, which further angered the locals.

A Rohingya refugee family in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh
Image: Kazi Riasat/NurPhoto/picture alliance

'What can we do?'

Nur Sadek, a 19-year-old Rohingya — who was recently rescued after setting out on a perilous voyage towards Malaysia on a rickety boat — admitted that he "did not find any other option."

"Though it was a mistake, I foresaw no end to this misery we are in and I became desperate," the teen said, breaking down in tears. "What is our destiny? What should we do then?"

Refugee and migration crisis expert Professor Shahab Enam Khan said the end to this unrest solution lies only in Myanmar where a military junta has "no genuine interest" in repatriation.

Until then, the refugee camps should become a self-sustaining economic ecosystem, he suggested.

"The government and the international community must work to build entrepreneurial skills to let the refugees have gainful economic opportunities," the University of Delaware Fulbright professor said.

The UNHCR says it receives regular complaints about abductions, disappearances, threats or physical attacks by armed groups and criminal gangs involved in illegal activities along with gender-based, domestic and neighborhood violence.

"Mediation is provided to prevent escalation of conflicts. UNHCR has also enhanced its presence in the camps, and increased monitoring activities," UNHCR spokeswoman Regina De La Portilla said.

"Protection and assistance services, including psychosocial support, are being provided to respond to the specific needs of individuals."

But the once-warm welcome for the refugees has cooled.

"The Rohingya have already overstayed their welcome," Rahman, also a lawyer, said.

Refugee leaders say that such a belligerent attitude would only deteriorate the mutual respect.

"We are just stuck and strangled in a very odd position. As if we don't even exist," said Sadek, wiping away his tears.

Edited by: Keith Walker

Rohingya mark 5th anniversary of exodus