Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh say living conditions worse than in Myanmar: Report

BANGKOK - A brutal military crackdown in 2017 forced over 700,000 Rohingya to flee from Myanmar to Bangladesh. But severe movement curbs, violence and extortion these Muslims now face in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps are making some so desperate that they are thinking about suicide, according to a report released on Friday.

Cox’s Bazar is a town on the south-east coast of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh hosts about one million Rohingya refugees who have dim prospects of returning home after a February 2021 military coup plunged Myanmar into turmoil.

Although the Rohingya were regarded by Myanmar as illegal migrants and subjected to systematic discrimination prior to their 2017 exodus, many of them now perceive living conditions in Bangladeshi refugee camps to be worse than what they left in Myanmar, said the report by Youth Congress Rohingya (YCR), a refugee-led civil society organisation.

The report was based on surveys of 241 randomly selected refugees and 54 in-depth interviews with Rohingya respondents from 30 different camps across the Cox’s Bazar district, as well as four interviews with police officers.

Members of the YCR who conducted the interviews chose not to be identified in the report for fear of a government backlash.

Sixty-five per cent of respondents said they believed movement restrictions in Bangladesh were worse than what they had experienced in Myanmar.

The refugees said living in camps fenced in by barbed wire and checkpoints guarded by policemen who imposed arbitrary restrictions made it difficult for them to even move around within the camps.

Shrinking levels of food rations – cut twice this year to US$8 (S$11) a person per month, or less than nine US cents per meal – have made the situation dire, even as the refugees try to find work outside the camps to supplement their income.

Meanwhile, a 6pm-to-6am curfew – meant to maintain security in the camps – also prevents them from escaping from potential violence and criminal gangs that operate within these camps.

Among those polled, 81 per cent felt “not at all safe” or just “a little bit safe” in the camps. The vast majority of respondents – 86 per cent – said the movement curbs made them feel less safe in the camps.

In September 2021, Mr Mohib Ullah, a popular Rohingya community leader, was gunned down in one of the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps. His family blamed the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa), an armed group accused of instilling fear in the camps. In 2022, Bangladeshi police charged at least 29 Rohingya – some of them Arsa members – over the murder.

The Bangladeshi media has also reported on the murders and abductions as Rohingya criminal gangs battle for supremacy within the refugee camps.

The worsening insecurity has led to an increase in child marriages as well as the trafficking of women and girls, alleged the report.

“Families increasingly fear that their unmarried daughters will face assault and abuse in the camps. To avoid the personal and cultural impacts associated with (sexual and gender-based violence), families see child marriage as one of the only routes available to safeguard their daughters, effectively making the decision to trade one form of (sexual and gender-based violence) for another.”

Ms Sabina, 30, who lives in one of the camps, told the researchers: “We feel the same here as we did under the threat of the Myanmar military. At night, we feel very worried that the police, thugs or thieves can come to us. It’s more worrisome if we have a beautiful daughter or some more savings.

“It’s like we feel more unsafe here than we did in Myanmar.”

Fortify Rights director John Quinley III told journalists at an online press conference on Friday that many humanitarian groups working in Cox’s Bazar, while aware of the worrying conditions within the camps, were wary about speaking out for fear of losing access to the camps. “Human rights groups... should speak more publicly about APBn abuses,” he said. APBn refers to Bangladesh’s Armed Police Battalion, the key party involved in security in the camps.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), when contacted by The Straits Times, stressed that the provision of security within the refugee camps falls under the purview of the Bangladesh government.

But it added: “UNHCR has been advocating the adoption of security measures that do not impact the ability of refugees to access basic services and rights and live safely. UNHCR also advocates a more holistic approach to the law-and-order situation – one that promotes resilience to keep refugees safe and productive in their daily lives by investing in refugees’ education, skills development and livelihood opportunities.”

The UN agency added that it “remains committed to supporting the government in providing ongoing training of APBn police officers and emphasises the importance of protection-sensitive policing in which refugees can help in strengthening community relations with the APBn”.

Reiterating that the humanitarian programme for the Rohingya was “severely underfunded”, it said the “UNHCR remains steadfast in its collaboration with the largest array of donors and the government of Bangladesh, to mobilise resources to address the funding gap, and consequently address the immediate and longer-term needs of refugees in Bangladesh”.

“However, refugees should also be allowed to access at least part of their basic subsistence directly by offering them income generating opportunities, rendering them less dependent on external humanitarian assistance.”

The Straits Times has reached out to Bangladesh’s government agencies for their responses.

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