The demonstration was organized by ‘Adhikar Bastabayan Committee Ukhiya'
Hundreds of local people in Cox’s Bazar’s Ukhiya upazila took to the streets on Monday, demanding employment in the local and international charities that work in the district’s Rohingya refugee camps.
The protesters, mainly young men, accompanied by hundreds of locals, who said they were unemployed, took positions wearing white funeral shrouds at the upazila’s Court Bazar Station on Monday morning, blocking the traffic on both sides of the highway for hours.
The demonstration was organized by ‘Adhikar Bastabayan Committee Ukhiya.’
Police intervened in the protest and a clash ensured. Later, senior officials of the upazila administration arrived at the scene, offered assurances to the protesters after which the committee leader Imrul Kayes Chowdhury declared the protest postponed.
“Cox’s Bazar Deputy Commissioner Md Kamal Hossain and Ukhiya UNO Nikaruzzaman Chowdhury had set the NGOs (aid agencies) several deadlines to give priority employment to locals and stop laying them off,” said Imrul.
“However, they ignored them all, which pushed us towards protests.”
Other leaders of the movement alleged that in recent times the NGOs have laid off hundreds of locals, and the officials are practicing nepotism in new recruitments.Ukhiya upazila Assistant Commissioner (land) Fakhrul Islam arrived at the scene and gave assurances to the protesters.
“Your demonstration and demands are reasonable. All the demands will be accepted. Your message has been delivered to the top level through the deputy commissioner and the UNO,” he told protesters.
Fakhrul urged protesters to withdraw from the streets.
Meanwhile, the protesters forced many NGO vehicles to turn back from going to the refugee camps in the morning, preventing NGO staff from getting to work.
Ukhiya police station Officer-in-Charge Nurul Islam said traffic was blocked for about three hours on the Arakan Road due to the protests.
Are aid agencies tightening belts?
Speaking to the BBC, the demonstration committee’s Chairman Sharif Azad said the law does not allow refugees to have work permits.
“The aid agencies have employed at least 7,000-8,000 Rohingya refugees defying the law,” he claimed.
He also alleged that the aid agencies have been sacking local employees, showing flimsy causes.
According to 2017 estimation, more than 150 aid agencies have active operation in the Rohingya camps.
Regulations in place bar these charities to hire Rohingya refuges as full time staff members, but they can be used as volunteers in exchange for a wage.
The demonstration took place three weeks after a Cox’s Bazar-based watchdog organization had claimed that the money raised to aid the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh was being spent to maintain the luxurious lifestyle of the executives of the international charities.
What did the watchdog say?
At a press conference on February 11, the Cox’s Bazar CSO-NGO Forum (CCNF) Co-Chairman Abu Morshed Chowdhury Khoka presented a written statement, accusing the NGOs and CSOs of appropriating the money for their own benefits and not helping the Rohingyas.
He said: “There are 123 local and international NGOs working in the Rohingya camps. These include 21 INGOs and five NGOs based in Cox’s Bazar. Others, based elsewhere in the country, have expanded to Cox’s Bazar.
"They raise funds claiming to rehabilitate and assist the Rohingyas, but spend the money on luxury SUVs, five-star hotel rooms, and other amenities."
The watchdog spokesperson said he was afraid the bulk of the money was not spent for the Rohingyas. He said they have tried to send a message to the government through the Cox’s Bazar administration to no avail.
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He demanded the government strictly monitor NGO and INGO activities in Cox’s Bazar.
He also said: “They have to limit their luxurious lifestyles and ensure 70-80% jobs for locals at the Rohingya camps. If not, the Rohingya crisis is going to scar Cox’s Bazar.”
What aid agencies have to say about the demonstration?
Rezaul Karim, executive director of Coast NGO in Cox’s Bazar, said the aid agencies and charities in Cox’s Bazar are sympathetic to the demands made by the locals on Monday.
“However, we under no circumstances, will condone subversive behaviour like road blockage and vandalism that took place today,” he said while talking to the BBC.
“We are for keeping 70% quota for locals for the field-level jobs in the camps. But that has to be on qualification and meritocracy,” he said.
End of economic boom in Cox’s Bazar in sight?
Local residents and businessmen have been saying that though the presence of a large number of charities has caused an economic boom in the area, it also had a negative impact simultaneously.
Many complained that the local economy was suffering due to the presence of the humanitarian organizations.
Transport costs have more than doubled, house rents have also gone up, and prices of daily commodities have also shot up, according to locals.
Outside the camps, Rohingyas who came to Bangladesh before the latest influx have set up bustling shops and markets with surplus of the aid they receive as aids, for a fraction of the price, compared to local markets, affecting market stability.