Investigating jewellery shops around Rohingya camps, the Dhaka Tribune unearthed an illegal network used for trading drugs and other contraband items
Several months ago, jewellery shop owner Bimal Das (not real name) shifted his outlet from Teknaf’s Shah Porir Dwip to Ukhiya’s Balukhali area, aiming to increase profits.
He set up shop near the entrance to the Balukhali Rohingya camp and started raking in profits close to his expectations. There is just one problem: his shop showcase barely has any jewellery for sale.
After some probing, Bimal confessed his store is really a front for illegally exchanging different foreign currencies and the Rohingyas are his primary customers.
Providing more details, the jewellery shop owner admitted that the Rohingya refugees get financial aid from their relatives living abroad, and he exchanges that money into Bangladeshi Taka for a hefty commission.
“I also sell low-grade ornaments made of imitation gold to Rohingyas, and they seldom notice the difference,” Bimal told this correspondent.
When asked why he is engaged in this illicit trade, the jewellery shop owner pointed out that he is only involved in currency exchange, while some of the other jewellers who recently set up shop in the area are trading in drugs and other contraband.
This correspondent asked around the camp area for information about illicit activities, but most jewellery shop owners denied having any knowledge about the matter.
A Rohingya man named Nader Ali (not real name), living in Bangladesh after escaping Myanmar in 2001, said: “I managed to save some gold ornaments during my escape from the Rakhine state.
“I got acquainted with a few local jewellery traders. They helped me set up a little jewellery shop in the Kutupalong camp area.”
He continued: “However, selling and buying jewellery is not very profitable in this area. So, I set up a few other seasonal and side businesses. Through these businesses, I earned enough to send my younger brother abroad on a Bangladeshi passport.”
Refusing to disclose the true nature of his seasonal and side businesses, Nader admitted that he is involved in illegal activities, but added that there is nothing else he can do to ensure a better life for himself and his family.
Echoing an earlier comment made by Bimal, Nader revealed that some people made a lot of money within a very short time using their jewellery business as a front for illegal trading.
What is really going on?
Since November last year, more than 50 jewellery shops have sprung up around the Rohingya camps in the Ukhiya and Teknaf upazilas of Cox’s Bazar, where more than a million displaced Rohingyas from Myanmar are sheltered.
At first sight, it would appear that the jewellers are selling jewellery to their Rohingya customers and other local people. Customers also appear to buy ornaments from these shops on the eve of wedding ceremonies and other occasions.
However, sales are not strong enough to justify the disproportionately large number of jewellery shops springing up around the Rohingya camps.
A number of Rohingya leaders, local public representatives, and law enforcement officials revealed these shop owners are running illegal remittance businesses and selling contraband to desperate Rohingya refugees, using the jewellery business as a front.
The jewellers are cheating the already poor Rohingyas by selling them low-grade ornaments made of imitation gold, said several Rohingya people claiming they were conned.
Upon further investigation, this correspondent has learned that many of these newly established jewellery shops are doing business without any permits or legal papers from the authorities concerned.
A 50-year-old Rohingya woman, Rabeya Begum, who is at the Jamtoli Camp after fleeing from Kinisi village of Rakhine state, told the Dhaka Tribune: “I took a pair of earrings to a jewellery shop near Panbazar to have them polished. It was a gift for my nephew’s wedding.”
“After a couple of days, the shopkeeper returned my ornaments. However, those earrings felt like cheap imitations. I complained to the shopkeeper, but he threatened me into silence. I later complained to our Majhi (title given to a Rohingya leader), but no steps have been taken as yet.”
Rabeya did not lodge a complaint with the local police, fearing further harassment.
A Rohingya woman named Jamila narrowly avoided being conned by the owner of another local jewellery shop. Jamila, after much effort, managed to get back her necklace she took to the shop for polishing.
She got her necklace back unpolished, but the shopkeeper still charged her for the work.
These dubious jewellery shops have flooded different parts of Cox’s Bazar, especially near Rohingya camps in Kutupalong, Balukhali, Thaingkhali, Jamtoli, Tajnimarghona, Moynarghona, Nayapara, Leda and other adjoining areas.
General secretary of Cox’s Bazar district unit of Bangladesh Jewellers’ Samity, Osman Gani, admitted such malpractice is taking place in the region, saying: “It is surprising that there are more than 50 jewellery shops around refugee camps.
“Even two to three shops usually face difficulties in making a proper profit.”
Further admitting that he has heard the above mentioned allegations, Gani said: “We have discussed the matter at our association meeting. Such fraudulent business practices must be stopped.
“We have already informed different law enforcement and intelligence agencies about the matter.”
When approached, an official of the Ukhiya and Teknaf upazila administration and local police stations said action is being taken against those involved in illicit activities.
However, no such action was reported till the filing of this report.
Following a military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state that began on August 25 last year, more than 700,000 Rohingyas, mostly women and children, crossed into Bangladesh fearing for their lives.
They joined more than 400,000 others who were already living in squalid, cramped, refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.