More than 700,000 Rohingyas, who fled the genocidal military operations of Myanmar a year ago, are still living under constant threat of attack. Sheltered in 30 refugee camps in different parts of Cox's Bazar district, they are not vulnerable to Myanmar army's raid anymore. This time, they are being threatened by their own people.
Thousands of adult and able-bodied Rohingya, unemployed, and in desperate need of cash and food, are getting involved in crimes like drug and human trafficking, hijacking, and gang robbery. With the increase of these organised crimes, internal feud among Rohingya groups is intensifying which frequently leads to murder, revenge rape, and riot. According to Cox's Bazar district police, in the last one year, at least 22 Rohingyas have been killed in the unregistered refugee camps—which essentially means at least one Rohingya has been murdered every month.
Besides murder, six cases of rape, 68 narcotics-related cases and 142 cases related to robbery, riot and different types of petty offences have been filed in Ukhia and Teknaf police stations. All these offences were perpetrated in the refugee camps and according to the police, by the Rohingya refugees. More than 500 of them have been indicted in these cases and 122 Rohingyas have been arrested so far.
Such rapid growth of criminal gangs and their unrestrained activities is not unknown to the local administration. Assistant Superintendent of Police Shahidul Islam, DSB, Cox's Bazar says that five new police camps have been established in the refugee camps and a battalion of armed police will soon be deployed to strengthen the security. However, without addressing the root causes which lie hidden in the unpremeditated administration system of the refugee camps and in the weakening social cohesion among Rohingyas, this crisis will not be solved just by deploying crude force.
The majhi murders
One of the root causes seems to be the rivalry between the majhis – the leaders of the camps selected by the Bangladesh Army a year ago to help maintain order in the camp. The unregistered refugee camps, are divided into many blocks. In each block, a majhi usually leads a group of around 100 families.
These majhis again select a block head and chairman to lead several blocks of the refugee camp. However, many of these heads and chairmen cannot operate without support from the majhis. In the Kutupalong makeshift refugee camp, there are around 375 majhis. Although this system more or less worked during the refugee influx, it is now creating agitation among Rohingyas. Allegations of malpractices such as distributing relief goods unequally and collaborating with traffickers are rampant.
In addition, many of the murders are linked to rivalry and grouping among majhis. On June 18, Arif Ullah, head majhi of Balukhali-2 refugee camp was killed while he was going to Palongkhali from Balukhali refugee camp. Arif Ullah, who was fluent in both Bengali and English, was a very popular figure among the Rohingyas.
Star Weekend spoke to Arif Ullah's brother, who had to flee Balukhali with his and his brother's family and take shelter in Lambasiya refugee camp.
“My brother helped the Bangladesh government to maintain order in the refugee camp. He also helped the aid organisations to distribute relief goods. Journalists and representatives of different international organisations used to look for him as he could communicate with them smoothly. He was vocal against human trafficking and he helped the government to run the registration process. I think he was killed by the terrorist group which was really disturbed by his anti-trafficking campaigns and his role in the registration process,” his brother, preferring to not be named, says.
However, a majhi from Balukhali camp, provided contrary claims. “Arif Ullah was involved in drug trafficking. He was in touch with the Myanmar government. He was influencing Rohingyas to return to Myanmar. This is why he was killed by Rohingya insurgents,” the majhi says. The Cox's Bazar police concluded that Arif Ullah was killed “due to internal feud within the Rohingyas”.
Arif Ullah's death isn't an isolated incident. In January this year, three Rohingyas were killed due to rivalry among majhis. On January 19, Yusuf Zilan, a majhi of Tajinmargola camp was killed by some masked assailants. On January 13, two Rohingyas named Momotaj Ullah and Mohib Ullah were attacked by machete-wielding assailants. Momotaj was hacked to death on the spot and Mohib Ullah, a majhi of Madhurchhara camp was badly wounded.
The “internal feud and rivalry among majhis” is just one contributing factor to a broader, impending crisis. Tension is brewing in the camps as Rohingyas, are getting involved in crimes like abduction and gang robbery.
On September 3, three Rohingya youngsters named Khaleque, Nurul Alam and Anwar were abducted from Balukhali camp, Kutupalong makeshift camp and Lambasiya camp respectively.
All three of them were taken to the Chakmarkul Rohingya slum at Teknaf and then transferred to a cave. Upon being informed by the local people, the Teknaf police rescued these badly injured Rohingya youth from the cave. According to a relative of the victim, they were kidnapped by a gang of six men who identified themselves as the police. They tried to kill them by slitting their throats. The police could not confirm the motive behind this particular abduction.
Abdur Rahim (not his real name), a refugee of Kutupalong makeshift camp says, “Sometimes, local villagers, through their Rohingya contacts, hire us as day labourers. We have to go with them as we desperately need money and food. But when I go with them, I always call Allah because there is no guarantee that I will not be abducted and will return safely.”
Rahim's anxiety is not at all baseless. Repeated incidents of abduction and murder have been terrorising these people for the past year. On June 13, Mohammad Selim, a resident of Kutupalong registered refugee camp, was abducted. On the same day, Mohammad Ayub, majhi of E-1 block of Kutupalong unregistered camp, was abducted. Five days later, on June 18, Selim's gagged dead body was found floating in Telipara canal of Balukhali and Ayub's dead body was found in a ditch in Kutupalong on June 25. Likewise, on May 23, Shafi Prakash Boli, a refugee of Kutupalong makeshift camp, was abducted by some masked assailants. Three days later, his lifeless body was recovered from Madhurchhara jungle by the Ukhia police.
However, efforts from the law enforcement agencies are making little impact as many of these incidents are not even reported.
“One of the major challenges to combating these crimes is lack of awareness and intimidation by the assailants. Most of the times victims are threatened by the traffickers and abductors who told them not to contact the police and human rights activists. In fear of further harm, the victims don't even inform us or law enforcement agencies about the cases. This is making the situation more complicated as the criminals are now enjoying in an unchallenged environment,” says Ali Kabir, Human Trafficking Researcher, World Commission of Human Rights.
In addition to organised crimes, incidents of sexual harassment and rape and conflict related to these incidents are also making these camps extremely restive. On July 27, a riot broke out in Lambasiya camp which seriously wounded at least four people. However, it was caused by a rather insignificant incident when a father slapped a teenage boy for proposing to his daughter.
Amanullah, a refugee of Lambasiya camp says, “Many of us in this camp are educated and were quite solvent and respected at our hometown in Myanmar. Now, here we have to live with all sorts of people. And, this reality is creating problems.” Because, all the refugees are living in the same place regardless of their previous social status, a psycho-social tension is brewing among the Rohingyas. Amanullah explains, “Criminals and rowdy youths often approach our daughters and sisters. Many of them, who could not even get a job as a servant at our homes in Myanmar, now threaten to abduct our daughters unless we don't agree to their marriage proposal. This is an intolerable situation which can cause many more riots in the future.”
Nikaruzzaman, Upazila Nirbahi Officer of Ukhiya, had informed Star Weekend earlier that in the beginning of this year, he had received as many as 50 complaints of clashes among Rohingyas every day.
Dr Mohammad Abul Kalam, Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) of the Bangladesh government says, “Running Rohingya refugee camps is no less complicated than running a country. There are more than a million people of all types in less than a 12 square mile area. Conflicts and petty offences will be inevitable in this condition.”
However, he promises of better protection in the near future. He says, “We are in the process of deploying more police units including two armed-police battalions in the camp sites. Law and order situation in the camps will improve very soon.”
“Repatriation is the only solution”
Experts though see no visible solution to this intensifying problem. Professor Dr Zia Rahman, chairperson, Department of Criminology, University of Dhaka says, “Rohingyas are an extremely deprived community. Not only are they impoverished and barely educated but also, they have been oppressed for generations and suffering from acute identity crisis. According to all classical theories of criminology, they will definitely show deviant behaviours like riot, burglary, murder, hijacking. These behaviours are often caused by their struggle for survival and also from the psychosocial pressure they receive from the host-community.” He adds that refugees in European countries where all the vulnerabilities have been checked also showed these common deviant behaviours.
According to Dr Zia, the only solution to solve this crisis is to ensure proper repatriation of the Rohingya refugees. He argues, “With our limited resource, it is not possible for us to ensure corrective treatment for this huge amount of people. If they cannot be repatriated with full rights in the near future, their existence in such unliveable condition will definitely affect the country's social and economic fabric.”
As night falls upon these 30 Rohingya refugee camps, the Rohingyas pray to pass the night without being a victim of murder, abduction, rape or riot. They don't know when these times of uncertainty will end. However, they only know that such nights of uncertainty will be over if, and only if, they can return to their homeland with full rights and recognition.
Shahid Rubel is a Cox's Bazar based journalist
Md Shahnawaz Khan Chandan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org