Rohingya refugees: focusing only on their return home ignores the crime and health crises in Bangladesh’s camps

A Rohingya refugee mother protects herself and child with an umbrella carrying the logos of several European aid organisations. EPA-EFE/K M ASAD

In recent years, Bangladesh has made some remarkable economic and societal developments. The country has reduced the number of people in poverty by 16m, for example, and higher numbers of children are being enrolled in primary school education. Child mortality has also been reduced, and the average life expectancy increased. But sustaining this progress is not easy – and the influx of almost a million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar since August 2017 has added multiple challenges in areas such as public health, security, the economy and the environment.

The Bangladeshi government, national and international NGOs, and a number of UN bodies are all diligently working to satisfy the basic needs of the refugees, who live in two camps in the country. Looking long term, the main focus has been on the repatriation of the Rohingya. But while a legally binding convention between Bangladesh and Myanmar is far from being agreed upon, there are countless short-term concerns that must be addressed, for the sake of both Bangladesh and the refugees, who are one of the most vulnerable and victimised groups in the world today.

One of the most pressing issues is the fact that these refugees are being increasingly targeted by criminal gangs, and getting involved in criminal activities. Thousands are at risk of human trafficking, while others are being recruited as drug mules to smuggle in “Yaba pills” – a popular methamphetamine brought in from Myanmar which is causing something of an epidemic in Bangladesh. The Rohingya refugees are viewed as easy prey by drug dealers. And as victims of organised crime they often become subject to severe forms of violence too, including death.

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh protest a repatriation programme in November 2018. EPA-EFE/K M ASAD

There are growing concerns that some Rohingya refugees are both perpetrating and becoming victims of other violent activities as well. In the past year, at least 22 Rohingyas have been killed, and official records reveal six cases of rape, 68 narcotics-related cases, and 142 robberies and other offences. What is even more worrying for Bangladesh, and potentially for South-East Asia more widely, are reports that is that the refugee camps are in danger of becoming recruitment grounds for terrorists. Other refugees have already told the media that some refugees claim to have ties with organisations such as Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which has operated in Northern Myanmar since 2013. Deemed a terrorist organisation by the Myanmar government, ARSA says that it only exists to fight for the Rohingya people to be recognised as an ethnic group.

Escape at any cost

In addition, there is the fact that some are still making risky journeys by themselves to escape the camps, and contributing to the global migrant crisis in doing so. Having attempted to get to Malaysia, Indonesia, and other Middle-Eastern countries, many have been stranded in rickety boats in the seas around South-East Asia. They make the perilous journey despite the rising number of boats capsizing, and become stuck with dwindling food and water supplies. Some have managed to reach to Saudi Arabia but have been deported back to Bangladesh – although it is not known how they managed to obtain the Bangladeshi passports needed for the journey.

These desperate attempts to escape evidence how difficult life is in the Bangladesh camps is. A large number of the Rohingya refugees have been stuck in captivity for years, subject to inhuman conditions, with scarce resources causing sheer hopelessness. They are unemployed, and the majority are hungry and frustrated about their precarious situation.

Some of them try to get jobs locally while others, mostly women, marry local men in the hope of a better future. But the Rohingya refugees do not have a legal right to work in Bangladesh, or marry a Bangladeshi citizen. These activities only make them vulnerable to further exploitation, abuse, and other criminal behaviour.

The conditions in the camps are causing serious health and environmental concerns too. Recent reports suggest that 869 cases of HIV have been identified among the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. There are also major risks of outbreaks of other infectious diseases including chicken pox, diarrhoea and cholera too.

Research has also found that the refugee camps are having a detrimental impact on Bangladesh’s ecology and environment. About 4,300 acres of forest and hills have been razed to make way for the camps, threatening the biodiversity of ecologically critical areas and putting the refugees at risk from landslides. In addition, nearly 6,800 tonnes of wood is collected for use as fuel each month, and an average of 60 bamboo culms are used to construct temporary shelters for each Rohingya family.

Impact on Bangladesh

The World Bank anticipated that the influx of Rohingya refugees will strain Bangladesh’s economy. It is estimated that Bangladesh will require an additional US$1,211m in 2018-19 alone for the Rohingya refugees. Though international donations have been made, they will only go so far. This additional pressure will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the Bangladeshi people, and escalate tensions and conflict between locals and the refugees.

The Rohingya refugees are often described as a burden, but sketching out the bigger picture shows that this is an intricate humanitarian disaster. The limitations and challenges faced by both the host communities and the vulnerable refugees need to be dealt with in a dignified and rightful manner. While an international resolution is certainly needed, there are countless complex issues that must be addressed in the short term, for the benefit of both Bangladesh and this incredibly vulnerable group of refugees.