By Kamran Reza Chowdhury and Sunil Barua
Bangladeshi officials on Friday defended security measures aimed at “protecting” Rohingya refugees, after an international NGO said in a new study that barbed-wire fencing, watchtowers and restrictions on phone use and movement could drive refugees toward crime or extremism.
The report released Friday by the International Crisis Group (ICG) warned that such “counterproductive” security measures could alienate the refugees and “set the stage for greater insecurity and conflict in southern Bangladesh,” where more than 1 million Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar are sheltering.
The Rohingya refugees “cannot expect freedom and other facilities like the Bangladeshis [have],” Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told BenarNews as he fielded questions about the study published by the Brussels-based group.
A segment of the refugee population in Cox’s Bazar district has been involved in criminal activities that are on the rise, including homicides, muggings, narcotics smuggling, and human trafficking, he said.
“Therefore, we need to restrict them to the camps to protect the vulnerable, innocent Rohingya people and curb the criminal networks at the camps and its vicinities,” the minister said.
“If they are allowed to move freely, they will spill all over Bangladesh and commit criminal activities. We do not want this to happen,” he added.
The ICG report pointed to security measures that the Bangladeshi government began rolling out in August to restrict the movements of refugees and non-governmental organizations operating in refugee camps and settlements in and around Cox’s Bazar.
The authorities have started fencing in some camps and they also plan to build watchtowers and install surveillance cameras, the report noted.
“If the Bangladeshi government continues to look at the situation through a short-term lens and falls into a pattern of heavy-handed responses to security challenges, the situation could become more fraught and dangerous for all concerned,” the group said in the 17-page report, titled “A Sustainable Policy for Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh.”
The report was based on fieldwork in Bangladesh and Myanmar that included interviews with refugees, government officials from both countries, as well as U.N. and NGO officials.
“In the absence of prospects for repatriation and longer-term planning, such a crackdown will only increase the refugees’ desperation. It could even make them more susceptible to recruitment into criminal or extremist networks, which would add to the security challenges Bangladesh faces,” it added.
The report also noted that “armed groups and criminal networks appear to be active in the camps.”
In December 2016, ICG said in another study that “several hundred young Rohingya men from Bangladesh” had joined a rebel group known as Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY) in fighting the Myanmar army in Rakhine state, the home of the Rohingya.
HaY is the original name of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), an insurgent group that Naypyidaw has blamed for a series of deadly raids on government security outposts in Rakhine in August 2017 that unleashed a brutal military offensive. In turn, alleged atrocities committed by government security personnel forced more than 740,000 Rohingya Muslims to seek refuge in nearby southeastern Bangladesh.
Bangladeshi authorities have denied that ARSA has infiltrated the refugee camps but members of the Rohingya community in Cox’s Bazar have alleged that the rebels were involved in killings that took place in the district in 2017 and 2018.
In his comments to BenarNews, however, the home minister also justified the security measures as necessary in guarding against a militant threat.
“There are possibilities that the extremists may target the Rohingya for radicalization and militancy. So, we need to watch them. We will not allow any terrorist and militant activities in Bangladesh,” Khan said.
When asked to respond to the ICG report, retired Col. Faruk Khan, a lawmaker with the ruling Awami League party who chairs the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, described the construction of barbed-wire fencing around the camps as “a necessity” that would “protect the Rohingya from criminals.”
“The armed forces will construct fencing while law enforces will keep watch on the camps from watchtowers,” the MP told BenarNews. “I do not see anything wrong with watchtowers and vigilance.”
‘No plan to shelter the Rohingya refugees for years’
Bangladeshi officials also responded to one of the central points in the ICG report that criticized Dhaka for seeking “to treat the displacement crisis as a short-term challenge” by “focusing on the importance of repatriation [of the Rohingya refugees] and refusing to engage in multi-year planning.”
“We do not want to engage in multi-year planning as we have no plan to shelter the Rohingya refugees for years. We want them to be repatriated as soon as possible. We have been diplomatically engaged with Myanmar, and I hope Myanmar will take them back,” Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen told BenarNews.
To reduce crowding at refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar and ease pressure on surrounding Bangladeshi host communities, the government plans to send 100,000 refugees to Bhashan Char, an island in the Bay of Bengal where it has built housing to accommodate them.
“The Ukhia and Teknaf [sub-districts] have been become unlivable due to the pressure of 1.2 million Rohingya. So, we have planned to relocate them to the well-protected Bhashan Char island, where they can have education and livelihood opportunities. But they are unwilling to go there,” said Khan, the home minister.
In Cox’s Bazar, a refugee leader said the Rohingya community would abide by the government’s security measures.
“We do not want to confront the government. We have to accept what the government does. We have to stay here. We will not commit anything detrimental to the government,” Md Abdur Rahim, who heads Camp-4 at the Kutupalong refugee camp, told BenarNews.