Rohingya refugees trapped between state violence and armed gangs

Rohingya Muslims
7 min read
24 November, 2021

The legitimacy of repatriation to Myanmar is looking increasingly difficult for Rohingya Muslims dwelling in refugee camps in Bangladesh due to escalating violence in Myanmar's Chin and Rakhine states.

Meanwhile, a perilous chain of events has also further exacerbated refugee fears since the killing of prominent community leader Mohib Ullah in September by armed gangs.

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are exasperated by the unfolding crisis. 

Mohammad Yousof, a 65-year-old shopkeeper and father of eight told The New Arab he had been warned by the Bangladesh Camp in Charge (CIC) official that if he did not “destroy” his tea shop, they would do it for him. Days later, as he served his customers he said, “the CIC arrived with a bunch of men at 11.30am and destroyed about 15 or 16 shops”.

Some of the Rohingya living in camps say rations from the World Food Program are not sufficient to feed their families. Yousof, who said he sold tea, coffee, biscuits, cigarettes, and betel, was saving money for his daughter’s wedding; money that he said was also being used to buy “fish, vegetables and medicines we cannot get from the NGO hospital”.

"The legitimacy of repatriation to Myanmar is looking increasingly difficult for Rohingya Muslims dwelling in refugee camps in Bangladesh due to escalating violence in Myanmar's Chin and Rakhine states"

He said his children are not educated and so cannot get jobs with NGOs in the camp. “We were told Rohingya cannot do any kind of business in the camp; they [CIC] accused us of making money for gangs to buy weapons. Instead of finding and arresting the real culprits, they are torturing innocent people like us. 

“We cannot survive this kind of life anymore. What is our fault? We are only running tiny corner shops to support our poor families, nothing more than this. We just want to go back to Myanmar but we need help from other countries. We know we are being treated this way because we have become a huge burden for Bangladesh.”

Mohammad Jamil, a 32-year-old father of four, told TNA he operated his small barbershop next door to Yousof. “My shop was also destroyed last week. I am an illiterate person and cannot do any other work, cutting hair is the only thing I know. I don’t know what to do now or how I will provide for my family,” he said.

“We are not allowed to run a shop in the camp or outside of it. Without my salon, where will I find the funds to feed my family? We cannot get peace in Bangladesh or in Myanmar. The Rohingya people are like a football being kicked around by the entire world.”

TNA contacted the CIC about the allegations but did not get a response. 

In the meantime, violence has swept Myanmar’s northwestern region, escalating in both Chin and Rakhine states.

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“The UN has rightly paid attention to this conflict as it is yet another focal point in a worsening regional crisis that was triggered by the militia junta ruling Burma and its garrison state mentality,” SOAS professor of political thought Arshin Adib-Moghaddam told TNA.  

“They are pursuing a particularly violent form of what I call psycho-nationalism as they are repeating in Chin state what they did to the Rohingya in Rakhine State in 2017. The bottom line is an unsuccessful attempt to subdue civil society.”

According to the UNHCR, there are 907,766 registered Rohingya living in Bangladesh refugee camps. In 2017, more than 700,000 fled from their homes in Rakhine as Myanmar’s army burned down their villages.

The Bangladesh government is keen for the Rohingya to be repatriated to Myanmar, but with violence raging in the country, Adib-Moghaddam said this would not be a just solution.

He added: “History has shown that such forced deportations are both a poor policy tool and more importantly an inhumane pseudo-solution for deeper social and political problems caused by authoritarianism and arbitrary forms of governance.”

Rohingya - Getty
According to the UNHCR, there are 907,766 registered Rohingya living in Bangladesh refugee camps. [Getty]

One anonymous Rohingya source told TNA: “The people of Chin State are facing the genocide that we Rohingya people have been facing in Rakhine State under the regime of the brutal military government in Myanmar. After seeing this, we are afraid to return, we believe it is dangerous for us to return there in such situations.”

Simultaneously, he said danger also lurks around every corner of the camp because of gangs such as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army [ARSA] and the armed police crackdown launched in the aftermath of Mohib Ullah’s killing.

Mohib Ullah was gunned down in late September in a refugee camp near the port city of Cox's Bazar. The 48-year-old teacher emerged as a respected advocate for the community but in the weeks before his assassination had been the target of death threats from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militant group.

He added: “If anyone talks about ARSA, action will be taken against those people. The Bangladesh government and the public are hating us because of these people. We don’t support them, but we cannot rise against them because we don’t know who in the camp is with them. They could come at night by covering their faces and take us out of the shelter and kill us. So we stay silent.”

At the same time, he said police raids of shelters and threats of arrest have turned the entire Rohingya community into suspects. “Police are raiding shelters and checking everything after Mohib Ullah’s death. If they find knives or money, they seize these things or threaten people with fines or arrest. Now we are more afraid than before.”

"Danger lurks around every corner of the camps because of gangs such as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army [ARSA] and the armed police crackdown launched in the aftermath of Mohib Ullah's killing"

Another Rohingya man said: “I tell you, our people are very sad and upset; they [police] take our phones and demand money; they beat and threaten to arrest if we don’t pay them, and they check every individual that leaves and enters camp. It means we can’t go to market, can’t sit at the shop, can’t wait on the road or sleep in the shelters or go anywhere in the camp without questioning.” 

Bangladesh police authorities refuted allegations of aggression and police behaviour in the camps.

Rezaur Rahman Lenin, a human rights academic and activist based in Dhaka, told TNA that in the face of violence in camps and in Myanmar, mass relocation should be an option but it is not being discussed by Bangladesh and the international community because of “trade and neoliberal interests”.

He added: “The arrival of Rohingya in 2017 made Prime Minister Hasina a ‘mother of humanity,’ generated jobs for Bangladeshi people and helped restore Bangladesh’s image on the international stage while helping generate funds and aid from the international community.

“If voluntary relocation is not a solution, Bangladesh should recognise the human rights of the Rohingya by allowing them to integrate into society; and by utilising their skills and manpower to help Bangladesh evolve politically, socially and economically.”

But such integration has become more unrealistic than ever, especially in the wake of Mohib Ullah’s death, which has led police to arrest more than 170 Rohingya Muslims as they search for the perpetrators.

It has been claimed that protest action was also prohibited recently when members of a small crowd demanding justice for Mohib Ullah’s death in the camp’s Balukhali area were warned to stop by armed police.

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In a video of the protest seen by TNA, the protestors held placards that read: “ARSA does not represent the Rohingya people, we want to stay peacefully with safety and security in the camps,” and “we thank the Bangladeshi people and government for their support.”

One man told TNA that some Rohingya have been known to escape the camp’s intensity and hide out in other parts of Bangladesh. But freedom of movement is restricted for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, which means they are not legally free to come and go from the camp facility.

Education facilitator Ana Collins, who has spent 10 years working with the education of Myanmar minority refugees, told TNA that leaving the camp presents Rohingya with a catch 22 situation. “The further you are from the camp as a refugee, the less protection international agencies can offer.”

One Rohingya man, who said he is in hiding, spoke about his concerns for his father’s health. “We cannot go to the camp for treatment from Médecins Sans Frontieres because of the dangers we face; we do not want to be recognised by gang members there.”

But according to Collins, the relationship between agencies and Bangladesh authorities is “so sensitive that internationals cannot be seen to support or encourage Rohingya who leave the camps.”

A UNHCR spokesperson told The New Arab: “Law enforcement agencies are in charge of maintaining security and safety in the camps. We continue to urge the Bangladesh authorities to take immediate and effective measures to improve the security in the refugee camps. This includes arrest and prosecution, in accordance with the law, of those responsible for instigating and committing recent violent attacks and killings.”

Anu Shukla is a freelance journalist based in London. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AnuShuklaWrites