Since the beginning of their latest influx from Myanmar in 2017, more than 1.1 million Rohingyas are now living in 34 camps in Cox’s Bazar and Bhashan Char, Bangladesh. Only about 19,000 Rohingyas have been relocated to Bhasanchar camps so far; and relocation of 2000 more is currently on the way. Hence, almost all the forcibly displaced Rohingyas have been living in camps based in Cox’s Bazar. Housed with more than 630,000 Rohingyas, the Kutupalong camp has become the largest of its kind in the world. The location of these camps has immense security implications for Bangladesh from local to national level.
Bangladesh is dealing with four adverse forces which have direct implications with the locations of the Rohingya camps. First, Bangladesh and Myanmar share a complex relation among them. And the source of the complexity is not only the forced out casting the Rohingyas, but also the hostile border, territorial claims and drugs and other trafficking in the borderland. The projection of the Rohingyas as ‘Bengali Muslims’ and ‘illegal Bengali immigrants’ by the Myanmar state apparatus further complicated the relation.
Second, Bangladesh has sheltered more than 1.1 million Rohingyas on humanitarian ground. But as the repatriation process is lingering, the Rohingyas are becoming frustrated. Moreover, they are also engaging in conflict with the local Bengalis. Third, Bangladesh is dealing with another giant neighbor, India that has been pursuing an ‘indifferent’ approach particularly in respect to the issue of Rohingya and Myanmar. India has been pursuing a policy of ‘Non-Interference’ which is weakening the regional support for the prospect of the repatriation of the Rohingyas. At the same time, it is maintaining warm relations with the Myanmar regime. Such kind of Indian position creates new challenges for the diplomacy of Bangladesh given the surrounding regions of India – Mizoram, Manipur and Tripura. Fourth, while the international community praises Bangladesh for extending humanitarian support to the Rohingyas, they also have expectations on the government of Bangladesh to grant ‘refugee’ status to the Rohingyas’ and creating more facilities for the Rohingyas in the camps.
Against this backdrop, the presence of the Rohingya camps has implications for a host of security threats to Bangladesh. It is linked with the exacerbating of threat of terrorism and violence in the region. Experts have been arguing over the past four years that the Camps would become a den of terrorism and violent extremism perpetrated by home grown and global terrorist outfits. The Home Minister of Bangladesh also expressed this concern in an exhibition recently. The Prime Minister also raised this concern in her speech at ASEM conference. Activities of several formal and informal groups active in the camps and the surrounding areas are prone to vitiate the region through violent attacks and radical ideology. For instance, the recent killing of Rohingya leader, Mohibullah and the recent violent attack in Rohingya camp that killed 6 Rohingyas bears the proof of such claim. Moreover, the Rohingyas living in camps generally belong to orthodox and fundamentalist orientation of Islam. Many of them have been educated through religious schools. Hence, they have mindsets that could be exploited by the recruiters.
Another major security threat for Bangladesh is the state of the 271-km long border that the two countries share. It has for long been the source of escalating tension between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Myanmar’s repeated provocative behaviors on the border front are common feature. From the sudden erection of barbed-wire fencing along the border to the deployment Myanmar armed forces in the border camps along the Rakhine and Chin states’ border in western Myanmar bordering Bangladesh, Myanmar has been showing its provocative behavior time and again. Several other factors such as location of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps on the Myanmar side, rampant drug trafficking, regular and irregular cross-border flows of the Rohingyas add to the continuing border instability and tension. These factors could become more threatening for Bangladesh due to the location of Rohingya camps near Bangladesh-Myanmar border.
Apart from the accumulated impact of the above-mentioned elements, they can harm Bangladesh in their individual capability. For example, drug smuggling has been facilitated by the Rohingyas living in the camps and beyond. Particularly, these camps have historically provided safe havens for the drug dealers, peddlers and carriers. Communication between the criminal elements has been immensely benefited from the location of camps near the border. Human trafficking is also another area that benefits from this situation. Fourth, the presence of the camps near the border also gives psychological impetus to engage in criminal activities as they are close to their home territories and familiar with the surrounding areas. They can also easily hide and move.
The location of the camps has also made it possible for the foreign elements to maintain their links with the camps. These foreign elements may find it convenient to run their clandestine operations in the camps through these links. Given the nature of current world politics, it is a likely source of concern for Bangladesh emanating from the location of the camps.
On the other hand, these camps are becoming a geopolitical threat for Bangladesh in the context of growing significance of Cox’s Bazar, coastal areas, and the Bay of Bengal for Bangladesh. Hostile nations and non-state groups can exploit these camps to create instability in Bangladesh. Finally, the presence of more than 1.1 million Rohingyas in 34 camps has already caused an alarming demographic change in the region. The combined population of Teknaf and Ukhiya is about 300,000 while the number of the Rohingyas is more than 11,00,000. The population of Cox’s Bazar district is 2.29 million which is just twice of the Rohingyas. This demographic configuration has terrible consequences for Bangladesh in the long run both from traditional and non-traditional security perspectives.
The above-mentioned factors make it evident that the location of the Rohingya camps near the border of Bangladesh and Myanmar are not safe. It has implications for national security as identified in this analysis. While the presence of the Rohingya camps anywhere in Bangladesh is a source of threat for Bangladesh, this particular location has additional concerns that Bangladesh should focus in its policy and actions. However, one can also argue that the location of the camps in a specific region helps Bangladesh better management of these crime prone and vulnerable people. Particularly, law and order situation is a major concern when such a large number of displaced people exist in a country. The concentration of the Rohingya camps in part of the district of Cox’s Bazar may look advantageous for Bangladesh to maintain law and order situation and contain criminal operations of the Rohingya groups. Despite this advantage emanating from their presence in Teknaf and Ukhiya, the risks and dangers are substantive that need to be addressed with proper measures. The temporary relocation of the Rohingyas in Bhashanchar is a game-changing initiative of Bangladesh that should be pursued and expanded in the coming days.
*MD Mufassir Rashid, MSS in International Political Economy (Ongoing), Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Dhaka, Bangladedesh.