The fifth largest city in Bangladesh is home to a million people – but no Bangladeshis live there. Spread out over almost 5 miles on the Southeast coast, the Kutupalong refugee camp is home to a growing population of Rohingya who fled a systematic campaign of genocide in neighboring Myanmar. While the plight of the Rohingya has received international attention, there appears little hope for a solution. Today, the plight of Rohingya refugees reflects a humanitarian crisis of historic proportions. The global community must work out a sustainable solution or else this humanitarian crisis could metastasize into a global security threat.
For outsiders, the scale of the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh is impossible to fathom without seeing them firsthand. After a harrowing drive through narrow dirt roads, visitors leave behind thick forests as a sea of corrugated tin roofs opens to the horizon. What may come across as a surprise is that the people living there are not entirely destitute. The camps are relatively clean and well-managed. Residents have access to decent food and healthcare. Small shops line the major thoroughfares, which, in many ways resemble dense villages in other parts of the country, but on an exponentially larger scale.
Life in the camps is not free from peril, however. Violent crime is on the rise. Murder, kidnapping, and extortion are becoming increasingly commonplace. Criminal gangs are creating concerns among the camp-dwellers, while drugs are spreading among the largely unemployed population. One well-connected Rohingya leader told one of the authors that the “most profitable trade inside the camps is yaba,” a methamphetamine drug. Young women and girls in the camps have been forced into prostitution. Recently, tensions have risen in the camps after a local politician was allegedly killed by Rohingya residents. Authorities have expanded the presence of police and intelligence officers, but current security resources are stretched thin. Police in the district have proposed a new police battalion to help address concerns about the rising crime rate, but this does not address the root cause of the crisis, which is that the refugees lack a clear path to a meaningful future outside the camps.
Thankfully, religious extremism has yet to become a serious problem in the camps – but that, too, can change in no time. Bangladesh has taken significant measures to prevent the infiltration of radical groups, but there are reasons to worry that it is only a matter of time. Shahriar Kabir, a human rights activist who has been monitoring the activities of extremist groups in the Rohingya camps, warns that Jamaat-e-Islami and other like-minded Islamist extremist groups are vying to gain footholds among Rohingya refugees. He also suspects that some of the groups might be receiving patronage from Pakistan and some Middle Eastern countries. Mosques and madrasas in the camps are largely under the influence of Hefazat-e-Islam, a radical Deobandi group that advocates for draconian blasphemy laws and the persecution of religious minorities, including Muslims who do not accept their extreme interpretation of Islam. Hefazat has already threatened to launch an armed jihad against both Myanmar and Bangladesh to advance the group’s ideological goals. Meanwhile, “extremists stalk camp mosques, promising salvation through militancy.” Kabir notes that some seventeen militant outfits run by Rohingya extremists have been identified in the camps.
Despite the challenges that radical groups pose, there are ways to curb their influence. Education is one of them. In a recent report, the International Crisis Group (ICG) called on the government of Bangladesh to lift its ban on formal education in the camps and improve law and order, while calling on the international donor community to “cover the costs of measures that improve [Rohingya] lives and prospects for the future.” But ICG ultimately concludes that “there is no prospect that the refugees will be able to return home to Myanmar’s Rakhine State any time soon,” which raises fundamental questions about how to implement its recommendations.
The Government of Bangladesh is adamant about the need for the Rohingya to be repatriated to Myanmar as soon as possible, and rightly so. And it’s not that the displaced people don’t want to return. A recent survey by BRAC, a Bangladesh-based development organization, found that many Rohingya would be willing to return home if certain conditions were met. However, there is no sign that those conditions are present or will be anytime soon. Mark Lowcock, under secretary-general for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator at the United Nations, says that Myanmar has failed “to put in place confidence-building measures that would persuade people it’s safe to go back.” Last month, no one responded to an offer for repatriation.
The Rohingyas still hope to return home, though. “If the international community can make a sustainable solution, we can return home,” a resident told one of us during a visit earlier this year. A sustainable solution that allows them to return home is not only in the interests of the Rohingya people, but the world. It is undeniable that Bangladesh’s generosity towards the Rohingya people is unprecedented. But the longer they are forced to live in camps without hopes for a future, the risk of them becoming radicalized only intensifies. Given the sheer number of refugees, this would present a security risk far beyond the local area. Furthermore, allowing Myanmar to carry out a campaign of genocide with impunity would only send a message to despotic regimes across the world that they, too, can commit crimes against humanity without a fear of repercussions —a precedent the world can ill afford.
When asked what they need, the Rohingyas speak clearly: justice. Unfortunately, without a concerted effort by the international community, justice remains elusive. The international community needs to do more than to send humanitarian relief to Bangladesh. We ought to send a clear message that the free world does not tolerate systematic oppression, let alone ethnic cleansing. We must demonstrate to the Rohingyas, and the world, that our defining ideals of liberty and justice for all remain paramount.
Seth Oldmixon is a South Asia analyst. He served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bangladesh, and is the founder of Liberty South Asia, an independent campaign promoting religious freedom in the region. Arafat Kabir writes about South Asian politics. A contributor to Forbes Asia, his articles have also appeared in the Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal.
Photo credit: UNICEF/Brown