By Krishna Kumar Saha*
Bangladesh and Myanmar have recently initiated a repatriation programme to return Rohingya refugees to their homeland—of whom over a million live in overcrowded camps in Bangladesh. These initiatives have drawn support from other countries in the region, including China. There is scepticism, however, about the effectiveness of these new initiatives, and the Bangladesh government is approaching the situation with cautious optimism. Further, given ongoing conditions in Myanmar, such as the discriminatory citizenship law and restricted mobility for Rohingya refugees, repatriation efforts are unlikely to be successful without a significant changein the state’s policies.
The repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar also is beset by other challenges. One of these is the questionable support of other major Asian countries. The two major reasons, however, why these efforts are doomed to fail—apart from Bangladesh’s own shortcomings—are Myanmar’s lack of cooperation, and resistance from armed Rohingya refugee groups.
Silenced Activists and Criminal Activity
In early 2019, Mohib Ullah, the influential Rohingya leader from the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPH), started the “Let’s Go Home” campaign with the specific demand of repatriation. In September of the same year he was shot dead. His was just one of the several reported killings of leaders vocal about repatriation within the Rohingya refugee camps. The “Let’s Go Home” campaign eventually failed because of a lack of leadership.
The Bangladesh Police and Mohib Ullah’s family have accused the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a group that claims to be working for Rohingya rights, of his murder. Others like him have also been threatened by the group owing to their growing popularity and agenda in the camps. Further, there are other groups—10 total, including ARSA —operating in these camps. All of them are vying for greater social control of the Rohingya refugee groups, with frequent and violent clashes between them. The groups also control and regulate the drug trafficking, human trafficking, and extortion/protection rackets in the camps. ARSA and these groups are reportedlyresponsible for the torture, kidnapping, and killing of Rohingya rights activists, repatriation advocates, and nominated camp leaders.
Even though there is pressure on the Bangladesh government, and from the international community, to repatriate the refugees, it is clear that there is a rooted—even violent resistance—within the organised Rohingya refugee groups. With Rohingya leaders being killed and the emergence of new violent groups exacerbating internal conflict, the Bangladesh government has taken steps to curb violent activity within the Rohingya camps. The government has initiated joint operations aimed at seizing arms and drugs and prioritised the prevention of groups such as ARSA and the Arakan Army (AA) from infiltrating camp territories.
A Challenged Process
The geography and terrain of the Rohingya camps have been useful for these illicit activities and the armed groups’ unfettered operations. In addition to their spread, the crowded nature of the camps—across 33 Ukhiya and Teknaf Upazila of Cox’s Bazar—limit the state’s capacity to police and maintain law and order in these areas. As a result, the Armed Police Battalion force deployed there—numbering at 2,300-strong—hasn’t been able to adequately patrol and survey these areas, which include reserve forests, hilly areas, and border towns. There is an obvious lack of overall capacity.
Further, among the armed groups active in these areas, ARSA is the most powerful. It has a majority control over the criminal activities in most Rohingya camps. ARSA, which has received the most national and international attention as a group, fuels the state of lawlessness in these camps to thwart state intervention, while also violently clamping down on prominent Rohingya refugee leaders. Along with ARSA and other armed groups like the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO), dacoit and smuggling groups have begun to run rampant in the camps, dictating the social and political lives of the refugees.
In the past, campaigns and road marches within the camps have sought to put pressure on both the Bangladesh and Myanmar governments to facilitate the repatriation of Rohingya refugees. After all the violence and lawlessness, however, these campaigns appear to be doomed. Repatriated refugees also face serious threats to their security. A few were repatriated in 2018, and it later came to light that these repatriates were living under severe restrictions, with no freedom of mobility and work. The Rohingya refugees claim that if Myanmar’s citizenship law is not amended, any attempt at repatriation will not address fundamental insecurities.
Krishna Kumar Saha is Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Administration at Comilla University, Bangladesh.