Bangladesh: Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind

Andolu Agency Archive 

Andolu Agency Archive 

As Bangladesh continues to absorb the fleeing Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, another refugee crisis potentially looms over Dhaka from Assam, India. As Assam conducts the first draft of the National Registry of Citizens (NRC), roughly 1.6 million people are being examined closely as their residency in India is subject to question. While the final registry will be submitted in June, the affair is causing concern in Bangladesh due to the potential influx of additional refugees while the Rohingya crisis seemingly has no end in sight. Not only will a sudden influx continue to strain Bangladesh’s economy, but they can be exploited by human traffickers or recruited by terrorist organizations such as Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (Neo-JMB), al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups that operate throughout the region. 

The Rohingya crisis has yet to find an agreed-upon date of repatriation for the refugees which means the refugees will remain in Bangladesh until such a time. While talks about returning the Rohingya to Bangladesh have been successful, there has been no agreement on the possible timeline for the gradual repatriation of the refugees to the Rakhine State. Additionally, the Myanmar military is accused of burning 90% of Rohingya villages—in  addition to rape, murder and ethnic cleansing—leaving many refugees no home to return to. This further delays the process of repatriation, as Myanmar must now set up additional refugee centers and homes. Therefore Bangladesh will continue to provide for the roughly one million Rohingya refugees that fled from earlier periods of indiscriminate violence in Myanmar, until the repatriation process begins. The large influx of people, with no documentation due to Myanmar stripping their citizenship in 1982, makes kidnapping women and children easier for human traffickers. Many women and children are accidentally sold into slavery, for traffickers often deceive refugees by offering to hire women and children from their families as workers or cooks which refugees accept in order to provide additional food for their families.

The presence of the refugees is weakening aspects of the Bangladeshi economy in different ways, and will continue to do so until the crisis ends. Prices are rising for everyday items such as food and household products. Additionally, jobs are often taken by refugees who are willing to work for lower wages which causes tension with Bangladeshi workers. Businesses might also be affected in the long term as the popular tourist destination, Cox’s Bazar, is overrun with refugees and aid workers. Additionally, the estimated costs of providing basic services to the Rohingya refugees are between $812 million and $1 billion a year, and costs will continue to increase as the refugees are forecasted to give birth to roughly 48,000 babies in 2018. Costs can also be exacerbated by the spread of disease from refugees, on top of the outbreak of diphtheria that began in December 2017. Meanwhile, conditions in the Rohingya camps are inhumane, and foreign aid is declining, leaving the government to manage the disbursement program alone. 

There are additional strategic considerations surrounding the influx of refugees, for Rohingya refugees might be recruited by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). ARSA is the militant group responsible for the attacks which initiated Myanmar’s campaign of violence against the Rohingya in August of 2017. Bangladesh fears recruitment of refugees by ARSA and the use of Bangladeshi territory or refugee camps as staging grounds for attacks against Myanmar. Additionally, there are fears of the cooperation between ARSA and foreign terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda has called for jihad against Myanmar on behalf of the Rohingya and has allegedly provided funding to ARSA. Islamic Extremist groups in South Asia, such as al-Qaeda, have exploited sympathy among the Muslim Rohingyas due to their impoverished conditions and their violent ouster from Myanmar in order to gain recruits and will continue to do so. This gives al-Qaeda a chance to expand into Myanmar through Rohingya refugees, and presents Bangladesh another front in its counter-terrorism campaign. Bangladesh has effectively dismantled much of the IS network through counter-terrorism raids after a series of IS-linked attacks and assassinations culminating in the Holey Artisan Bakery attack which killed 22 in July of 2016. However, al-Qaeda remains influential in Bangladesh and maneuvers clandestinely to avoid counter-terrorism forces while earning respect among the Bangladeshi people by differentiating itself from the “more violent” Islamic State. 

The situation risks repeating similar circumstances in Bangladesh's northern border areas with India due to the upcoming NRC in Assam which would exacerbate problems within Bangladesh. As people are forced to leave Assam, many will flee to Bangladesh and become refugees as their settlement is resolved in Dhaka. Additional refugees would further stress the Government of Bangladesh as well as international partners who may not be able to provide adequate foreign aid to mitigate the strain of the upcoming Assamese influx. The new camps would entail additional costs in aid and personnel that Bangladesh can barely afford in addition to the current Rohingya crisis. Furthermore, large refugee camps along the Assam-Meghalaya border in Bangladesh could provide a source of recruits or a base of operations for anti-India insurgency groups such as the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULAF). While India and Bangladesh have worked closely on current counter-terrorism operations along their borders, the NRC in India might undo a lot of the progress made by the South Asian nations. 

To avoid this crisis, India could delay the Assam deportations until after the Rohingya repatriation process begins. Here, India could mirror the Rohingya repatriation by deporting the people in Assam gradually in order to allow Bangladesh to manage the crisis more effectively. Additionally, India could provide more aid to Bangladesh in order to reduce the effects of the upcoming influx of people. India could also assist Bangladesh by building additional shelters for refugees or provide additional aid-workers for the distribution of supplies. Moreover, both countries can continue to cooperate on counter-terrorism campaigns, and utilize their shared relationship with the United States for additional counter-terrorism assistance and intelligence sharing. Moreover, if the refugee situations became too burdensome on the economy of Bangladesh, the United States Pacific Command (PACOM) could be called on to assist in the humanitarian mission by delivering supplies and coordinating with the Government of Bangladesh for the distribution of aid.