Development, Government and governance, Social policy, Arts, culture & society | South Asia, Southeast Asia

9 October 2020

Already the most densely populated country in the world, accommodating one million refugees has created serious problems that Bangladesh must do more to address, Shafi Mostofa writes.

Nearly one million Rohingya Muslims residing in Myanmar have sought refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh over the last forty years. These Rohingyas have been settled mostly in the Bangladeshi city of Cox’s Bazar, and this has affected local people in a number of ways.

Existing scholarship points out that large influxes of refugees can create social and economic strains among local people when mismanaged, and Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are no exception.

Crime rates have climbed sharply in Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar. A newspaper report published in November 2018 reveals that 22 Rohingyas were murdered in 14 months, and another one hundred were injured. Some tabloid newspapers have claimed Rohingya groups are involved in kidnapping for ransom, muggings and other violent crime, along with the drug trade.

These conflicts are not just limited to Rohingya communities, but are affecting local people, foreign journalists, and security forces, and have resulted in a rise in lawsuits and even the crossfire killing of Rohingya refugees.

Along with drug trafficking, fake marriages to obtain citizenship have become a problem, and fake documents are generally prevalent in Bangladesh, something that may have contributed to the Bangladeshi government’s 2014 ban on marriage between Rohingyas and Bangladeshis.

Further, a reported 250,000 Rohingyas have already managed to get a Bangladeshi passport, and some have even gone abroad with illegal Bangladeshi passports. Without access to legal pathway to rights in Bangladesh, this is sure to remain an issue going forward.

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The environmental effect of long-standing refugee camps is another issue. Cox’s Bazar is a hilly and forested area of Bangladesh, in which an estimated 5,000 acres have been used for camps. A 2018 report suggests that this is threatening the biodiversity of ecologically critical areas of the country.

The report further reveals that around 7,000 tonnes of fuelwood is collected each month to service the camps from nearby forests. The report also found that the thousands of shallow tube wells dug to provide water for the refugees could pose a threat to aquifers, that air pollution has risen, and that, due to a lack of a recycling system, polythene bags and plastic bottles are all piling up in various parts of the area. This is clearly not sustainable, and an area where the Bangladesh government must do more to mitigate by providing more services, like recycling, to the camps.

The influx of refugees to the region has also affected the economy in a number of ways. For one, local people who depend on hills and forests for their livelihoods are losing resources as refugee camps are clearing forests for fuel and cutting hills to build shelters.

As aid money and international humanitarian personnel have poured into the area, the price of essential goods in the local market has skyrocketed. Kamal Ahmed, an auto-rickshaw driver, said: “The fish I used to buy at 30 Taka per kg, now costs 150 Taka. It is the same with vegetables. This is because all these products are bought for the Rohingyas and people working for various organisations. I simply cannot afford the price.” Another report depicts that travel cost and rental cost have risen dramatically.

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Reports also show that local wages have become depressed, with demand for jobs far outstripping demand for labour due to the influx of working-age people.

Still, there is no easy solution to this, as the refugees’ dependency on the area is obvious. Nearly 35 per cent people of Cox’s Bazar live below the poverty line, and around 20 per cent live below the extreme poverty line.

Social issues tend to follow serious economic upheaval, and reports show that anti-Rohingya sentiment is dramatically growing among local people.

Moreover, one study confirmed that “while the focus of aid relief is on Rohingya refugees, there is dissatisfaction among poor local Bangladeshis who are also affected by this crisis but are receiving little assistance from aid agencies.”

On top of this, local people have not been happy with some of the activities of Rohingya culture, which are seen as clashing with the ethics, values, and religious views of local Bangladeshi people.

The Dhaka Tribune, a leading national newspaper, has documented local voices in Cox’s Bazar, and revealed that locals are furious with the way the government have dealt with the issue of Rohingya refugees.

So why is this happening, and what can Bangladesh do? According to a 2019 report, 97 per cent of young people in Rohingya communities lack access to quality education or learning opportunities. This makes them especially vulnerable to illicit markets like the drug trade or prostitution, as their opportunities for legitimate employment in Bangladesh are very limited. Doing more on this front would be a start.

The government could also do more to protect the local environment, and work with Rohingya refugees to ensure the space they are living in is used sustainably.

Finally, the government must work to build social cohesion between local people and Rohingya refugees. This will be crucial to preventing simmering tensions from becoming serious social divisions or violence. Without more work from the government, these socio-cultural and economic effects could evolve into a breakdown in the relationship between locals and Rohingya refugees.

Clearly, there needs to be change. It is evident that locals have lost trust in the way the government treats refugees, and it must step up its management of the influx of Rohingyas or risk these serious issues causing sustained chaos in the region.

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