For Dil Mohammad and his family, a cramped refugee camp on the edge of southeastern Bangladesh has become a reluctant home for almost a quarter-century.
The 61-year-old Muslim Rohingya refugee brought his family here 23 years ago from neighboring Myanmar, fleeing persecution and discrimination at the hands of the majority Buddhist population of Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Conditions in the two camps at Nayapara and Kutupalong, in Cox’s Bazar district, are often squalid, packed with more than 30,000 registered Rohingya. Their lives have become largely dependent on aid from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the Bangladesh government.
Compared to the strife in his homeland, however, life has been relatively peaceful. Back in Myanmar, Mohammad says the government exploited members of the Rohingya community, forcing many like him to work in the fields or carry stones from quarrying sites without pay. He says he was physically beaten two or three times. When Rakhine mobs burned down homes in his village for a third time, he decided it was time to leave.
Now, Mohammad and other refugees are wondering if their lives will again be thrown into chaos. Fears have been spreading since November last year, when Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced that the government was planning to relocate Rohingya refugees to a “better place” — though details of any relocation plan have been scant.
“We have left everything in Rakhine and have gathered life here bit by bit over the years,” Mohammad told ucanews.com during a recent visit to the camp. “We fear that we might lose what we have if we are relocated and start everything all over again.”
With no official announcement of the relocation plans, refugees can only resort to rumors to predict their futures. One has it that the refugees will be relocated to separate districts in southern and central Bangladesh that are said to be prone to disasters.
Mohammad worries that life will become even more difficult for him and his family than it is now. However, he knows he is in no position to make demands.
“Being in a foreign land, we must accept what is in our fate,” he said.
Life is even more uncertain for non-registered Rohingya living in Bangladesh; they are, in the eyes of the government, illegal.
The UNHCR estimates that there are at least 10 times more unregistered Rohingya in Bangladesh — more than 300,000 people.
Some 15,000 of the undocumented Rohingya live in an informal settlement just beside Nayapara camp, including Harez Mohammad Tayub, who left Rakhine state eight years ago.
For Tayub, 32, it is the registered refugees who are the lucky ones.
“Registered refugees have good housing, food, security, and are able to fulfill basic human needs,” he said. “We have heard they will be moved to an even better place. They are lucky people. We are not.”
Bangladesh government officials declined to talk about the relocation plan when approached by ucanews.com. Farid Ahmed Bhuiyan, commissioner of the Rohingya Refugee Repatriation Committee under the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, said the relocation plan includes registered refugees only and is still at a preliminary stage.
The country office of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) also declined to comment on the issue.
Often described by human rights groups as one of the most persecuted peoples in the world, Rohingya refugees have effectively been rendered stateless. Though many have lived for generations in Myanmar, they are commonly viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The government frequently refuses to recognize Rohingya citizenship or even use the term when referring to Rohingya.
Rohingya have felt the brunt of a recent uptick in clashes between Buddhist and Muslim civilians, which has sent a new wave of refugees fleeing, by boat to other countries in Southeast Asia, or across the border to Bangladesh.
In the past, Bangladesh has been relatively accommodating, but in recent years has taken a harder line.
In 2012, Bangladesh closed its borders to Rohingya refugees, and the ruling Awami League government has remained defiant in the face of heavy international criticism on the issue.
Professor Imtiaz Ahmed of Dhaka University’s International Relations Department said the government must do more to protect persecuted Rohingya — particularly given Bangladesh’s own history as a source country for refugees during its own war for independence in 1971.
“We have always been positive when it comes to sheltering persecuted people. So, it was a blunder by the government because our image really went down,” he said, calling the Rohingya situation a “humanitarian issue”.
In 2012, the government also ordered three international aid groups — Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Action Against Hunger and Muslim Aid UK — to halt operations in Cox’s Bazar and stop providing aid to undocumented Rohingyas. Authorities said the presence of NGOs in Bangladesh effectively encouraged refugees to pour in over the border. The NGOs have maintained a low profile since the government order, but still continue aiding refugees quietly.
Local media reported at the time that Bangladesh had begun drafting a plan to address the issue of undocumented Rohingya refugees. That scheme, which has not been made public, reportedly contained 25 proposals, including forming a dedicated taskforce to stop illegal entries and installing an embankment as a barrier along 50 kilometers of the Naf River, which divides Bangladesh from Myanmar.
It also reportedly proposed a specific law that would make it illegal to offer shelter to undocumented Rohingya refugees.
Recent events suggest Bangladesh authorities are continuing their tougher policies against Rohingya.
On February 4 this year, officials in Cox’s Bazar district forcibly evicted about 35,000 undocumented Rohingya refugees from makeshift refugee camps near Shamlapur, a fishing village about 50 kilometers from Cox’s Bazar town, leaving them homeless.
Officials said the eviction was an attempt to reclaim the area from illegal encroachers along Marine Drive Road, which runs through the country’s most popular tourist destination.
Rights groups say that any government relocation plan that excludes unregistered refugees will fail.
“Over the years, it’s become abundantly clear in Bangladesh’s interactions with this group that Dhaka wants to get rid of them but doesn’t know how to make that happen,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“Many of these unregistered Rohingya live in the so-called ‘makeshift’ camp right next door to the official camps that the Bangladesh government wants to move. So then what happens to that still unrecognized group? Without a solution also for the unrecognized group, none of this will work.”
Robertson stressed that any attempt to relocate Rohingya, registered or not, must be done voluntarily.
For Tayub, the 32-year-old living in the unregistered camp, any future in Bangladesh remains precarious, with or without a relocation. He says he’s thankful that Bangladesh has given him shelter, willingly or not. But all things being equal, he knows his home lies not in Bangladesh, but in Myanmar.
“We don’t want to remain as refugees here forever,” he said. “If the Myanmar government provides us with rights, security and citizenship, we would like to go back to our country.”