What does the recent spate of violence in the Rohingya camps mean for the Rohingya crisis?
Rising violence in the Rohingya camps has added a new and alarming dimension to the Rohingya crisis. It has deeper security implications at the domestic and regional levels. Evidence shows that, although there had been occasional incidents of crime and violence in the past, the Rohingya camps had been relatively calm, defying many alarmists who had thought that the camps would become dens of terrorism and radicalization.
However, the gruesome killing of Mohib Ullah, the chairman of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, on September 29, 2021 in the Rohingya refugee camp of Lambashia, Kutupalong in Cox’s Bazar and the subsequent deaths of 7 others in the camps have caused a paradigm shift with regards to the Rohingya crisis.
On October 22, 2021, attackers killed at least seven people in an assault on an Islamic seminary in the Balukhali refugee camp. The police could not confirm the exact number of total wounded during the incident but a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) physician who requested anonymity stated that 20 individuals were seriously injured.
Reports show that the camps have become more dangerous, with armed gangs fighting for dominance, kidnapping opponents, and threatening women if they violate orthodox Islamic rules.
Why have the relatively peaceful camps become violent? To address this question, we need to dig into the death of Mohib Ullah. Prior to his death, Mohib Ullah had been facing threats. He told Reuters in 2019: “If I die, I’m fine. I will give my life. If suddenly there’s an ‘accident,’ no problem. Every community worker gives his life in the end.”
He documented various atrocities committed against the Rohingya by Myanmar’s military. Mohib Ullah was known as a teacher in the refugee community, and had come to prominence after going from hut to hut in the camps, collecting evidence of abuse, including mass killings and gang rapes. He had expressed his gratitude toward the Bangladesh government for sheltering the Rohingya and publicly pledged to return home with his fellow refugees as soon they received the rights they were demanding.
Behind the plot: Facts and issues
Evidence shows that the incident had been planned from before. It was cold-blooded murder and was carried out due to his growing influence as a leader of the Rohingya people. According to multiple field-level officials, some terrorist and criminal organizations in the camps are actively working to hinder repatriation as they benefit from life at the camps.
Mohib Ullah was in favour of repatriation. He encouraged ordinary Rohingya to return to their homeland and they listened to him. In addition, he had received several death threats in the past, especially following a gathering of more than 200,000 refugees in Cox’s Bazar to observe the Rohingya Genocide Remembrance Day on August 25, 2019 under the banner of his organization, the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPH). His organization claims that the threats were from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and other armed groups that contested his leadership.
The rising crime and violence may have several causes. First, as Bangladesh has been emphasizing that the Rohingya crisis would turn into a regional problem due to linkages with transnational crime networks, the current context of violence attests to this reality. Asylum seekers, displaced people, and refugees are always vulnerable to the influence of criminal groups.
The prolonged presence of the Rohingya in Bangladesh has created a conducive environment for different gangs and terrorist outfits to extend their activities and exploit these people. In this context, the name of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) is prominent. Habib Ullah, a brother of Mohib Ullah, blamed ARSA for the murder.
He had recognized three of the attackers -- they were Abdur Rokim, Murshid, and Lalu -- and claimed that Abdur Rokim was a member of ARSA. The most explosive evidence is one where Mohib Ullah states unequivocally that “they (ARSA) work hand in glove with the Myanmar government.”
According to the police, Rokim and his gang have been controlling abduction, extortion, and drug trafficking in the area for a long time by holding the Rohingya hostage at different camps. Interestingly, ARSA has denied any responsibility and has condemned the murder, blaming “transnational border-based criminals” for it in a statement.
Second, uncertainty about repatriation is a key reason behind the frustration among the Rohingya in the camps and a tool for the criminal gangs to take advantage of. There is no denying the fact that repatriation is the only plausible solution to the Rohingya crisis. The Myanmar political regimes have been fighting counter-insurgency wars for more than seven decades only to add more bloodshed and violence from both sides.
The failure of the international community and the Myanmar government to ensure the safe and dignified return of the Rohingya to their homeland provides the biggest impetus to the violent groups to perpetrate these crimes and become involved in violent extremism. ARSA and Harakah al-Yaqin are the two widely mentioned groups active in the camps.
Third, the international community has also failed to channel adequate fund for the Rohingya. Although the different local and international humanitarian groups have been crying for funds to support the 1.1 million displaced Rohingya, the response from the donors have been unsatisfactory.
Finally, the involvement of the Myanmar regime is also widely mentioned as a cause behind creating unrest and lawlessness in the camps with an aim to stalling the repatriation process. It is also to prove that the Rohingya are terrorists as the Myanmar government has repeatedly been claiming to the international community.
How does it affect Bangladesh?
Bangladesh has sheltered the Rohingya on humanitarian grounds despite the challenges associated with the crisis. Bangladesh has extended its resources abundantly in the interest of the Rohingya people. Forests have been destroyed to construct camps, and the government has allocated funds and provided massive security and administrative services.
Local host communities have also shared their resources. However, with time, the crisis has presented security challenges for Bangladesh on several fronts.
First, growing crime in the camps has deteriorated social security and safety in the region. People around the region feel unsafe and often attacked by muggers. Yaba and other deadly drugs have become more widely available.
Second, proliferation of small arms in the area and beyond is a major security challenge. Armed groups have allegedly been buying arms from local and international traffickers through sea routes, which could deteriorate the security situation in Cox’s Bazar drastically. They might even sell some of those arms to local Bangladeshi criminals.
Third, the traditional drug trafficking/narco cartel problem has further deteriorated with their prolonged presence, particularly with such a large number of the Rohingya, much higher than the population of Bhutan.
Fourth, factions among the Rohingya are continuously engaged in group rivalry and criminal activity. Radical groups have also kept their eyes in the camps for recruitment. ARSA and Harakh Al-Yaqin and a host of other violent outfits are reportedly active in the camp areas.
Furthermore, the activities of the criminal gangs and factionalism in the camps are tarnishing the image of Bangladesh. Many powerful states and international governmental and non-governmental organizations and global civil society actors unjustly blame the Bangladesh government for the situations in the camps. It is an irony that when the problem has been created by the Myanmar regime and no great power came to shelter the perpetrated Rohingyas, they point their fingers at Bangladesh.
Finally, the continuing instability and unrest in the Rohingya camps forces the government to remain engaged and allocate more resources. For example, the government of Bangladesh has constructed world class facilities for the displaced people in Bhasan Char from its own exchequer, at a cost of $310 million.
In conclusion, the violence is part of a big plan. It is aimed at undermining the repatriation process on the one hand, and on the other, creating insecurity and instability in critically important geopolitical regions of Bangladesh. Some external powers have hatched conspiracies to reverse development and progress of Bangladesh as the country is enjoying the longest period of political stability and prosperity.
Undoubtedly, these incidents signal the very danger of the existence of terror and violent groups in the camps that may create severe security threats to both Bangladesh and the Rohingya community. And beyond this, it also has ramifications for the regions of South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Bay of Bengal.
Tonmoy Chowdhury is an independent researcher and freelance writer. He is interested in Refugee and Migration, Human Security Issues, South Asian Politics, and Economic Diplomacy. He can be contacted at [email protected].