Bangladeshi Army Installs Barbwire Fence Along Rohingya Camps

By Muktadir Rashid   10 January 2020

DHAKA—The Bangladeshi army has started installing a barbwire fence along the edge of Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar district where 1.1 million refugees are currently living.

A highly placed source in Bangladesh told The Irrawaddy that a 2.09 billion-taka budget (US$24.6 million) was approved for the installation of a fence along the camps in Ukhia and Teknaf subdistricts in Cox’s Bazar following instructions from the prime minister’s office, in order to protect the refugees from crimes.

State Minister for Disaster Management and Relief Md Enamur Rahman told The Irrawaddy on Friday that his office has given permission to install fencing around the camps to separate Rohingya from their host communities. He said the government wants to stop the constant flow of drugs inside the camps and to prevent crimes, including murder.

At the end of November 2019, Bangladesh chief of army staff General Aziz Ahmed said they would be installing fences to improve the conditions in the camps.

The Ukhia subdistrict Executive Officer Md Nikaruzzaman Chowdhury said the army began construction three weeks ago in the Maynar Guna area.

“It is a transparent fence and it is for their protection, not for their isolation,” said Nikaruzzaman.

Many Rohingya, including Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya activist, have voiced objections to the plans.

“Setting up a barbwire fence will be like putting Rohingya into concentration camps,” he said. “I have visited the Nazi concentration camps. I don’t want my fellow Rohingyas to take refuge in the same kind of concentration camps.”

A local laborer works while Bangladeshi soldiers watch during the construction of a barbwire fence near a Rohingya refugee camp in Ukhia, Cox’s Bazar in December 2019. / Helal Uddin

A senior government official in Cox’s Bazar also said that aid agencies have been inquiring about the plans to install fencing.

State Minister Enamur also responded to criticism of the fencing from human rights activists and said that the refugees’ movements into and out of the camps would be more closely monitored.

“[The Rohingya] will have specific routes for their movement and they will be held accountable, but the government has no intention to hamper human rights,” he said.

In April 2019, Bangladeshi police authorities issued a set of recommendations in order to prevent criminal activities in the Rohingya camps in Ukhiya and Teknaf upazilas, or subdistricts, of Cox’s Bazar. The measures include setting up police outposts, watchtowers and barbwire fences around the camps to prevent the movement of criminals between camps and adjacent hills.

The police also said that some Rohingya criminals had become involved in smuggling and were crossing the border into Myanmar to bring in drugs. Around 60 Rohingya were killed in alleged “gunfights” with criminals in 2019 alone.

The Border Guard Bangladesh director general, Major General Md Shafeenul Islam, told reporters on Jan. 8 that they were also planning to install a fence along the Myanmar border at the same time that the army installs the fence along the Rohingya camps for their protection. The plan to install the fence along the border is reportedly still awaiting approval.

More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since August 2017 when the Myanmar military launched clearance operations in northern Rakhine State after the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army launched serial attacks on police outposts in the area. The refugees have taken shelter in Cox’s Bazar, adding to the 300,000 Rohingya who had already been living in the camps for decades.

From August 2017 to August 2019, a total of 466 criminal cases were filed that involved Rohingya as either a perpetrator or victim. The crimes include possession of illegal arms and drugs, robbery, rapes, abduction, smuggling, theft, murder and human trafficking.

The highest number of cases filed were for drug possession, at 128 cases. The number of crimes committed by the host communities in Cox’s Bazar was much higher.

Pillars stand ready for a new barbwire fence near a Rohingya refugee camp in Ukhia, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh in December 2019. / Helal Uddin

A senior police official in Cox’s Bazar told The Irrawaddy that as authorities have cracked down on “yaba,” or methamphetamine pills, drug peddlers and organized crime groups have begun using Rohingya for criminal activities.

Another official close to the fence installation process, who asked to remain anonymous, said that they sat with donor agencies and considered eight examples from across the world of how to manage refugees before the government opted to design a tailor-made arrangement for Cox’s Bazar. Last year, a government delegation visited Turkey to see how their government is managing its refugee situation and learn how Bangladesh might apply these lessons to the Rohingya.

“Look, we are doing this not only to protect the Rohingya but also for local and international aid workers and other Bangladeshi officials working there. Security is our priority,” said a senior intelligence official based in Dhaka who joined the delegation to Turkey.

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