A new wave of violence rocks Rohingya camps

Armed groups killed over 40 Rohingya refugees in camps in Bangladesh in 2022, while at least 48 refugees were killed in the first half of 2023, according to a rights group

Updated - July 18, 2023 04:27 pm IST

Published - July 18, 2023 03:48 pm IST - Dhaka

File photo of a Rohingya refugee camp, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

File photo of a Rohingya refugee camp, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. | Photo Credit: AP

In a brazen, daylight attack earlier this month, a group of assailants knifed a Rohingya community leader to death in Cox’s Bazar and fled. The death of Mohammad Ebadullah, 35, sent a shockwave through the Kutupalong block where he had provided community service. It all played out when a delegation of the International Criminal Court (ICC), led by Prosecutor Karim A. A. Khan, a British lawyer, was interviewing refugees in another block of the camp.

The murder of Ebadullah is part of a long list of killings by armed groups that stalk the world’s largest refugee camp in southeastern Bangladesh. Armed groups killed over 40 Rohingya refugees in the camps in 2022, while at least 48 refugees were killed in the first half of 2023. Seven refugees, including a camp community leader and alleged members of militant groups, died in three incidents on July 6 and 7, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Also read: Explained | What is India’s policy on the Rohingya? 

The rights group documented 26 cases of violence against Rohingya, including murder, kidnapping, torture, rape and sexual assault, and forced marriage, drawing on interviews with 45 Rohingya refugees between January and April 2023.

“Many of those killed have been Rohingya community leaders or their family members. Scores of refugees have been abducted for ransom and threatened or tortured. Several Rohingya reported the involvement of armed groups in sexual assault, forced marriage, and child recruitment,” Human Rights Watch said in a report released on July 13.

Escalating fear

Refugees describe an environment of escalating brutality and fear, with growing concerns of being targeted by criminal gangs and claimed affiliates of Islamist armed groups.

Over a million Rohingya refugees, a stateless Muslim minority, have fled violence in Myanmar in successive waves of displacement since the early 1990s. The latest exodus began in August 2017, when violence broke out in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, driving more than 742,000 to seek refuge in Bangladesh. Most arrived in the first three months of the crisis.

Bangladesh opened its borders to the refugees, earning global plaudits for its generosity, but the host country is now seemingly unhappy with the international community for not putting enough pressure on the military junta in Myanmar to make conditions safe for the voluntary return of the refugees. The government clearly did not anticipate that the Rohingya will remain for so long. Now the camps have turned into breeding grounds for crimes, partly because the Rohingya do not have access to education and livelihoods.

Also read | Should India change its policy on the Rohingya?

“If opportunities don’t exist, it becomes a problem. Then there is the risk of recruitment by these criminal groups. There is the risk of rising criminality for livelihood issues. And I think a large part of that is now, unfortunately, playing out in the camps,” Meenakshi Ganguly, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in an interview.

Killing of a rights campaigner

The existence of armed groups in Rohingya camps came to the fore after the killing of 48-year-old Mohammad Mohibullah in the Kutupalong camp in 2021. He was one of the most prominent advocates for the persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority. He represented the Rohingya community at the UN Human Rights Council in 2019. Prior to his death, he had been serving as chairman of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights. The group was founded in 2017 to document atrocities against Rohingya in their native Myanmar and give them a voice in international forums about their future.

Many Rohingya refugees are caught in the conflict’s crosshairs. Armed groups demand that the refugees be loyal to them and the security forces demand that they must identify the criminals.

“People are caught in the middle, they’re squeezed on both sides. And that is a really untenable situation for the people already in the worst circumstances in their lives,” Ms. Ganguly said.

Providing security is almost always the function of the state and it is for the state to determine how many troops they need and where they should be deployed to create a robust security mechanism, not only for the Rohingya but also for their own national interest, she added.

Armed groups in the camps have been increasingly kidnapping Rohingya refugees for ransom, forced recruitment, or human trafficking. There are numerous people that are roaming around identifying themselves as members of these groups only to extort the camp residents, creating a sense of fear and intimidation. Extortion can range from cash to the daughters of the house.

HRW documented 10 cases of abduction. Six victims described being tortured during their abductions. “I was fed only bread and water,” a teenage boy who was kidnapped in February and held for a week, until his family paid ransom, told the rights agency. “They beat me with thick electric wire. They tried to kill me and threatened they were going to. I was so scared. One of them tried to rape me. I still feel so worried when I think about that.”

Security measures

The rights group said the Bangladesh authorities failed to provide adequate security measures to protect people from surging violence by armed groups and criminal gangs. It urged the authorities to assist refugees by establishing accessible systems to report crimes and promptly investigate complaints.

Security risks are compounded by desperation in the camps. The World Food Programme reduced monthly food vouchers for Rohingya refugees in June, the second time in three months — a 33% reduction in the daily ration, citing the shortage of lifesaving assistance. With the food voucher valued at as little as $8 per person per month — that’s less than 10 cents per meal — the refugees face grim choices to make ends meet.

“Parents are already eating less and skipping meals so that their children can eat. The rations cuts affect approximately one million refugees who remain dependent on aid with no possibility of employment to sustain their livelihood,” the UN in Bangladesh said in a statement last month.

At the beginning of the year, refugees were receiving a ration from the UN food agency of $12 per person per month, just enough to meet their daily needs. In March, the ration was reduced to $10 in March due to lack of funding. Now, the ration will only have a value of $8 per person. Ms. Ganguly has called for more commitment from the international community to protect the rights of the Rohingya, acknowledging that the attention to the Rohingya issue has waned because the same resources have gone towards other security challenges, particularly in Ukraine after the start of Russia’s war.

That concurs with ICC Prosecutor Karim A. A. Khan’s tweeted message after his visit to Rohingya camps this month: “Amidst crises around the world, we must not forget the #Rohingya. The incredible hope they still have in justice is something we must protect & vindicate.”

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