Saturday, 9 October 2010

The Unwelcoming Committee

Source from Irrawaddy news magazine- Vol. 18, No. 9, September 2010 
Resentment of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh is giving rise to highly organized and increasingly vocal resistance to their presence
Sitting on a dusty balcony outside the local district office in Ukhia in southern Bangladesh, a group of smartly dressed men take turns speaking their mind. One man, taller than the average Bangladeshi, stands up. Throwing his fist in the air, he states the group’s objective.

Rohingya children in Bangladesh face a bleak future. (Photo: Yuzo/ The Irrawaddy)
“Those bloody naughty people, they destroy the environment, upset local law and order and sell drugs,” he says. “They must all go back to Burma.”

The rest of the group nod their heads and wave their hands to compete for the next opportunity to speak. Two things have brought this group of men together: grievances against Rohingya refugees who have settled in the area, and their powerful positions in the local community.

Together they have formed the Anti-Rohingya Resistance Committee, which has taken on the role of pressuring the government to repatriate Rohingya refugees to Burma. Despite their dedication to their cause, however, their goal remains highly ambitious and controversial.

Citing religious oppression in Burma, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh over the last three decades to seek asylum. Several times the Burmese government has made major pushes to flush the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority, out of Burma’s Arakan State—the last one being in 1992.
Since then, the Bangladeshi government has allowed the United Nation’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, to register 28,000 Rohingya who fled before 1992 and provide them with shelter in two official camps. Despite growing domestic pressure to force them out of the country, a government official told The Irrawaddy, “The government remains committed to voluntary repatriation.”

A far larger problem is the status of a growing population of unregistered refugees who arrived after 1992. Settling in two camps—Kutupalong and Leda—which have evolved into slums of the official camps, these later arrivals are not permitted to receive humanitarian assistance. But as local communities intensify calls for their repatriation, the unrecognized refugees say it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to leave the camps to find food and work.

Crouched on the floor of her small mud hut, Aatika, a 27-year-old mother of four, described how she was recently beaten and robbed by locals as she was coming back to the camp after working outside for three days.
“They told me I should not be here, that we were taking all the local jobs,” she said as she tried to calm her crying child. “Then they beat me and took my money. It was terrible. We do not receive any rations, so I have to go outside to make money to feed my children.”
According to refugees in the unofficial camps, the attacks are becoming more frequent as resentment of their presence grows in Bangladesh. This has created a climate of fear among the refugees, who risk losing their earnings every time they return to the camp.

Before Aatika had finished speaking, a man began recalling his ordeal. Faced with severe food shortages in the camps, he traveled to work in a rubber plantation. After three weeks, he returned to the camp to give the money he had earned to his large family. Knowing that he might have problems going through local communities on the way back, he hid the money in his shirt collar.

But this did not help him when, as he approached the entrance to the camp, he was ambushed by five local Bangladeshi men armed with knives. They ordered him to hand over his money, ignoring his protestations that he didn’t have any. They searched him until they found it, and then beat him up for “wasting their time.”
His meager earnings taken from him, he had no money to feed his family or buy medicine for his sick second youngest child, who died soon afterward. Death among the weak has become a common occurrence in the unofficial camps, where a local leader said that at least six people die every day from malnutrition.

In February, the relief agency Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and other groups highlighted the effects of involuntary pushbacks by the Bangladeshi government, resulting in a dramatic reduction of cases of forcible repatriation. Now, however, refugees report that arrests and imprisonment are becoming more common—something many say they fear more than being forced back across the border.

“When we are sent back, we are tortured by the Burmese army, but at least we can come back here when they’re finished with us. But if we’re sent to prison, we could be there forever,” said one refugee.
Despite the conditions reported by the refugees, Hamil Chowdury, the secretary of the Anti-Rohingya Resistance Committee, expressed little sympathy. He said the Rohingya receive too much assistance, while locals receive nothing.

The unofficial Kutupalong camp is home to thousands of Rohingya refugees. (Photo: Yuzo/ The Irrawaddy)
Cox’s Bazar, the district where the refugee camps are located, is one of Bangladesh’s poorest areas. Resources are scarce in this extremely overpopulated region, and many locals struggle to find jobs themselves, said Chowdury, who described the refugees as nothing more than a burden.

“Our area is so poor already, we cannot look after more people, especially when they are involved in crime,” said Chowdury who has strong links with the ruling Awami League party.

According to Chris Lewa, the coordinator of the Arakan Project, a group that advocates for Rohingya rights, politics is fueling much of the current anti-refugee sentiment, as local politicians gear up for promised elections postponed since last year because of allegations that some candidates had registered Rohingyas as voters.
“The Rohingya issue is still used for propaganda purposes among candidates and for their electorate,” said Lewa, who added that most of the Rohingya have since been purged from voter lists.

Leaders of the Anti-Rohingya Resistance Committee, which recently submitted a petition to the government calling for the closure of all camps, said the group will take action if its demands are not met. They warned of demonstrations and hunger strikes, and threatened to block roads to prevent refugees leaving the camps.
“If they do take matters into their own hands, we are very concerned because increased restrictions would mean more and more deaths from starvation,” said one refugee leader.

Another issue that could add to the problems of undocumented refugees is a proposed plan to issue national ID cards to Bangladeshi citizens. Anti-Rohingya groups support the move, which they say would make it easier to determine “who should be sent back.”
Lewa said this is now one of the biggest problems facing the unofficial refugees, who often hide in local communities when conditions in the camps become unbearable.

“Undocumented people are easily singled out, targeted and taken advantage of by the police,” Lewa said. “My recommendation would be that the government register them, either as refugees or, at the very least, by giving them temporary stay or work permits.”
Meanwhile, the Anti-Rohingya Resistance Committee said that their efforts are gaining momentum and that local communities would soon rise up to get rid of the unwanted refugees.

It remains unclear, however, if this surge in anti-Rohingya feeling will pass after the elections, or if the UNHCR’s plan to provide US $33 million in aid for the local population will help to ease tensions. But in the meantime, the Rohingya refugees continue to face food shortages and endure the burden of being stateless and unwelcome in both Bangladesh or Burma.

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