Nigel O'Connor

Bangladesh proposes interning, repatriating up to 270K Rohingya to Myanmar

Official government document reveals many Rohingya could be put in temporary camps, sent back to country they fled

TEKNAF, Bangladesh — Bangladesh has outlined proposals to intern thousands of undocumented Rohingya before repatriation to Myanmar, which they fled because of targeted violence and systematic discrimination, an official Foreign Ministry document obtained by Al Jazeera America reveals.

An estimated 270,000 stateless Rohingya live in overcrowded camps, on the outskirts of already impoverished townships, finding shelter in locals’ homes or using plastic sheeting and bamboo to construct huts in forests. An additional 30,000 have official status as refugees, living in U.N.-run camps but lack freedom of movement and the right to employment.

Dhaka announced a new national strategy for the undocumented Rohingya in February but has refused to make the details public. An International Organization for Migration (IOM) official provided the Foreign Ministry’s summary of key proposals to Al Jazeera America.

The document, dated March 31, 2014, reads, “It has been suggested that a survey/listing of undocumented Myanmar nationals in Bangladesh would be carried out in order to identify them and determine their actual number and location …  The listed individuals would be housed in temporary shelters in different suitable locations pending their repatriation to Myanmar through regular diplomatic/consular channels.”

It says the IOM would provide basic humanitarian needs, with the International Committee of the Red Cross assuming coordination of the delivery of humanitarian services.

An official at Myanmar's foreign ministry who spoke on condition of anonymity said the country would only accept Rohingya from U.N.-run refugee camps. Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said it is was also very unlikely that any significant number of Rohingya would voluntarily repatriate.

The Bangladesh outline provides no indication of whether any basic rights will be conferred upon registration. The IOM directed questions on whether Rohingya would have the ability to move freely and apply for identity documents and passports to the office of the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh, which directed the questions back to the IOM. Bangladesh's Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Denied citizenship in Myanmar and subject to tight restrictions on their daily lives, the unrecognized Rohingya in Bangladesh live in a legal vacuum, making employment illegal and leaving them open to abuse or corruption, with no recourse to justice.

The Rohingya are among the most persecuted people in the world, according to the U.N. Concentrated in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, predominantly populated by Buddhists, the Rohingya participated in the country’s political process after independence from colonial rule but were denied citizenship in the 1982 constitution. They are now subject to strict controls on movement and marriage, forced labor, extortion and home eviction and demolition, according to groups that monitor the human rights situation in Myanmar.

Bangladesh was criticized for committing human rights violations against Rohingya refugees at the height of Myanmar’s 2012 violence, which saw massacres and more than 140,000 Rohingya internally displaced. Boatloads of refugees were pushed back to sea as Bangladesh sought to seal its borders. Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said at the time. “Bangladesh is already an overpopulated country. We cannot bear this burden.”

That year, authorities attempted to close operations of three international charities aiding the undocumented Rohingya. Under the national strategy, international aid agencies currently undertaking medical, nutrition and sanitary work will be replaced by local organizations.

Onchita Shadman, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said the agency offered to undertake the documentation of the Rohingya but that the strategy proposal tasks government agencies with the work.

Many of the undocumented Rohingya in Bangladesh arrived during the 2012 violence. The 30,000 Rohingya with refugee status are mostly among those who arrived amid violence against Rohingya in the late 1970s and early 1990s.

An estimated 10,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar since mid-October after a wave of targeted violence after authorities announced plans to force Rohingya to identify as Bengali before assessment of citizenship. Under the plan, Rohingya refusing to register and those without identity documents would be placed in detention camps indefinitely. On Nov. 13, President Barack Obama reportedly called on Myanmar to draft new plans to give Rohingya citizenship.

Also outlined in the national strategy summary are punitive new laws targeting Bangladeshi nationals assisting Rohingya with employment, shelter or identity and travel documents.

“It has been further suggested that the existing national laws should be updated/amended or new law and rules to be developed in order to bring to justice those involved in issuing forged passports and other certificates/documents in favor of Myanmar nationals and providing them with shelter or illegal employment in violation of the immigration rules,” the document reads.

Mahada Khatum, 32, repairs a fishing net outside her home in the Shamalapur Rohingya refugee settlement on April 11, 2014 in Chittagong district, Bangladesh.
Getty Images

“The human rights situation in Bangladesh is quite dire for many Bangladeshis, but it is even worse for Rohingya, who face discrimination and abuse connected to their statelessness and lack of legal status,” said Robertson.

“The authors of the so-called national strategy must have been writing in a closed room, divorced from reality, if they thought this would be effective,” he added. “The Bangladeshi government is willingly deluding itself with its continued insistence that any of the Rohingya are going to be voluntarily repatriated to [Myanmar].”

Robertson said that few Rohingya would be voluntarily repatriated to Myanmar and that any who are sent back would likely be rejected. “In the middle, the Rohingya are treated like a pingpong ball, ready to be smashed back and forth and bereft of any sort of rights.”

A little upriver from the mouth of the Naf River, which forms part of Bangladesh’s border with Myanmar, the small township of Teknaf is swollen by an estimated 20,000 Rohingya. At the foot of a bridge in the center of town, a frail woman in a black sari sat wailing for alms, eyes closed, hand outstretched in her lap. Timber and bamboo is sent downriver from Myanmar and processed at small local mills. The town is a nest of gun runners and people smugglers and a key corridor in the lucrative yaba trade, a methamphetamine-based pill manufactured in Myanmar. Nightfall brings regular gunfights between authorities and traffickers. 

Muhammad Ismail spent a year living in a displacement camp for Rohingya in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, before paying for passage to Bangladesh in 2013. 

“The government and the Rakhine people worked together to attack the Rohingya and other Muslim people. They killed men, women and children,” he said. “After our homes were burned down, we were moved to the displacement camps, and one day I was arrested traveling without a permit. The police took my identity documents, and my name was blacklisted. When I got back to the camp, I knew I had to leave the country.”

Ismail now works in Teknaf’s market selling eggs. He wishes his stay in Bangladesh will be brief, holding out hope relatives abroad might help provide money to obtain travel documents and go to a Western country. In Teknaf the horrors of his homeland remain present.

“Many Rohingya are leaving [Myanmar] by boat, and the navy sometimes attacks the boats,” he said. “Hundreds have been killed like this. You can see the dead bodies of women, children and old people floating in the waters.” 

National authorities and the media regularly condemn the Rohingya for engaging in drug smuggling and other illegal activities. Mohammad Didarul Ferdous, an inspector with the local police force, said some Bangladeshis are also frustrated with the situation.

“They are taking so much firewood from the hills and forests. Everyone depends on firewood here, as we have no gas,” he said. “There is no chance for the Rohingya to work, and some are forced into illegal work. Everyone needs to survive, and businesses like the Rohingya because they are willing to work for less. We have had some incidents of local workers getting angry at the Rohingya for selling their labor for less.”

Regardless of the challenges, human rights groups say the government of Bangladesh has created many of the problems, seeking to discourage Rohingya from arriving by neglecting the Rohingya already living in the country.

“The conditions for Rohingya in Bangladesh have steadily worsened over the last year, particularly in light of the government's flawed strategy,” said Matthew Smith of Southeast Asia-based rights group Fortify Rights.

“There’s been a worsening chronic health emergency for Rohingya in official and unofficial camps in Bangladesh. These are some of the world’s worst refugee camps and have been for years.”

According to senior officials at the Foreign Ministry, policy in Dhaka is to deny journalists access to the makeshift camps so they can’t witness the squalor. The government of Bangladesh does not wish outsiders to see the children walking naked through the refugee camps, skin pulled tight across their rib cages. Some cough deeply, and others rub eyes filled with pus or scratch skin infections running across their backs, arms and chests.

The British charity Muslim Aid runs a rudimentary hospital along with sanitation projects and nutrition programs for pregnant women and infants.

Samiul Ferdaus, a doctor with the charity, said, “The camp lacks safe drinking water, and this leads to outbreaks of typhoid, diarrhea and cholera. There is an outbreak of hepatitis B here at the moment that risks spreading.”

The Leda camp, about 10 miles north of Teknaf and home to 15,000 people, backs onto a forest and consists of rows of housing constructed from plastic sheeting and bamboo. Residents run small markets, shops and tea stalls. The paths are crowded, and people mill around in the fringes of the forest seeking some privacy. The forest floor is covered in patches of human feces.

Authorities deny camp residents permission to operate schools. Of all the burdens, the most pressing is the lack of education, said Dudumir Kingtaung.

“We have no education, and the Bangladeshi government won’t let us open a school. We are afraid for our children,” he said, gesturing toward the woodland and the mingling groups. “It’s making us poor, and we are becoming like forest animals. The Bangladeshi government gives us shelter, and we are thankful for that, but why can’t we have one school?”

Across the makeshift camps residents attempt to provide some classes, in what they describe as underground schools, but with limited training and resources, their ability to make an impact is very limited. They fear that if authorities learn of the locations of the classes, they will be forced to stop.

The lack of education extends beyond the Rohingya to the local population. Dr. Shamsuzzahan Chowdurry, head of Teknaf’s hospital, said there is no high school available for local students, let alone Rohingya refugees. The few with means send their children to Cox’s Bazaar, the regional administrative center, which is three hours by car, or to Bangladesh’s second city, Chittagong.

“You will struggle to find 4,000 educated people here in a population of 400,000,” she said. “Education here is up to class five, to the age of 11. After that, there is no school. Girls get married at 13 or 14 to boys aged 18, and then they start their families.”

Chowdurry said the Bangaldeshi government’s approach is that if the Rohingya “don’t work for a long time and there is no facility for their health and education, then they won’t want to come.” 

Optimism for the Rohingya is in limited supply on both sides of the border, but many still hope to one day return to their homeland.

Alam said he is privately teaching his children to read and write in English, Bengali and Burmese to allow for a prolonged stay in Bangladesh but also in anticipation of a return to Myanmar.

“When the situation is better, we will go back. For me, [Myanmar] is a very beautiful country, but the government is very evil,” he said. “Bangladesh will let us stay, but here we have nothing.”

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