Camps holding Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have become increasingly unsafe amid “surging violence,” according to a new report that says the country’s authorities are not doing enough to protect them from unrest spilled across the Myanmar border and militant groups fighting for influence.
The Human Rights Watch report, released Wednesday, says there have been dozens of incidents of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping and other abuses since January in the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.
“Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s past pledges to protect Rohingya refugees are now threatened by violent groups and an indifferent justice system,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, HRW’s deputy Asia director, of the Bangladeshi leader.
For more than six years, around a million Rohingya have crammed into refugee camps in Bangladesh after fleeing a brutal military crackdown in Myanmar. The camps were intended as a temporary solution for a people whose well-being was briefly a global priority, but the Rohingya have found themselves trapped in Bangladesh, at risk of disease, malnutrition and extreme weather, and denied the right to work or settle – often without any escape but back to Myanmar, which is racked by civil war.
Dhaka this year began a pilot repatriation program to send hundreds of Rohingya to transit centres in Myanmar – despite most of the world not recognizing the military junta that seized power there in a February, 2021, coup. Last month, UN special rapporteur for Myanmar Tom Andrews denounced the scheme, saying it would “expose Rohingya to gross human rights violations and, potentially, future atrocity crimes.”
Bangladesh’s foreign ministry and the country’s high commission in Ottawa did not respond to a request for comment.
Violence has been growing in the Bangladesh camps for years now, with the authorities apparently unwilling or unable to respond. In 2022, at least 40 refugees were killed by armed groups, according to Bangladeshi police. So far this year, the number is 48, while HRW documented what it said were 26 separate incidents of violence, drawing on interviews with dozens of refugees. Rohingya who spoke to the activist group said all such figures are likely underestimations, given the difficulty of documenting or reporting such crimes in the camps.
Many of those killed have been community leaders trying to bring some order to the situation, or their family members. In 2021, Mohib Ullah, a prominent activist who once addressed the UN, was shot dead in his shelter in Cox’s Bazar. He had been subject to death threats for years as he worked to highlight the plight of Rohingya refugees, including risks posed to them by the growing presence in the camps of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a militant group.
The ARSA has been fighting the Myanmar government since 2017, when its forces attacked police and military posts in Rhakine, the state in northwest Myanmar where most Rohingya live – prompting a violent crackdown that sent refugees pouring into Bangladesh. The group has long been active inside refugee camps there, where it has been accused of recruiting soldiers – including children – to continue the fight in Myanmar, and targeting moderate community leaders.
In a statement, ARSA commander Ataullah abu Ammar Jununi expressed “deep concern” over recent loss of life in the Rohingya camps. which he blamed on a rival group. He said adding allegations of his group’s involvement were biased, misleading and false.
Speaking to HRW, one unnamed Rohingya activist said armed groups targeted people like them for power in the camps.
“If activists and educated people become stronger leaders, common Rohingya won’t fear the armed groups any more, and they’ll lose their control and their profits,” the person said.
HRW did not identify interviewees, citing threats to their safety. The Globe and Mail cannot independently verify their accounts.
HRW said the Bangladeshi police response to growing violence has been ineffective, characterized by indifference and sporadic raids that often sweep up innocent people. Aid workers operating in Cox’s Bazar said there had been an increased security presence in recent months, though most international agencies still pull staff out at night for their own safety.
In preparation for a planned trip to Bangladesh this year, The Globe spoke to multiple aid workers, who described worsening conditions across almost all fronts, with infrastructure decaying and damaged by flooding and storms, water and sanitation systems struggling, increasing cases of disease, and widespread hopelessness among refugees, who see no way out of their situation.
The Globe applied for permission from the Bangladeshi authorities to visit Cox’s Bazar in April, but has yet to receive any reply. In May, six civil society organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, warned of “widespread restrictions on freedom of expression” in Bangladesh ahead of the next general election in January, 2024.
As of this year, the UN Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya humanitarian crisis has received only a quarter of the required US$876-million in donor contributions, a funding shortfall that has led the World Food Programme to cut Rohingya food rations by a third since February, down from US$12 a month to only US$8.
HRW said this situation has led to “the spread of illicit activities like drug smuggling, extortion, and human trafficking in the camps” and urged the UN and donor countries, including Canada, to do more to help Rohingya refugees, and work with the Bangladeshi authorities to improve security and safety in the camps.