COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh — Bangladesh’s Department of Immigration and Passports (DIP) says there are 1,118,578 Rohingya living in Cox’s Bazar after completing its first official count of the population, which has mushroomed since a crackdown by the Myanmar military in Rakhine State in August that drove hundreds of thousands across the border.
Bangladesh is now working with the UN to register the refugees by household.
“We have so far completed joint verification of over 11,649 Rohingya from 2,538 families and are continuing our work. It’s complicated and time consuming because of [the need for] proper documentation,” a senior government official in Cox’s Bazar told The Irrawaddy on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Muhammad Habibul Kabir Chowdhury, chief of refugee affairs at the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, told The Irrawaddy last week that the government and UN were aiming to complete the joint registration by November.
He said they were hopeful that repatriation could begin very soon and would give Naypyitaw a list of 15,000 “forcedly displaced Myanmar nationals” ready and willing to return by the end of the month.
In February, Bangladesh gave Myanmar a list of 8,032 Rohingya refugees prepared to repatriate. Myanmar has since cleared about 2,500 of them for return.
None of them has as yet made the trip back to Myanmar, however. Bangladesh will send a delegation to Naypyitaw next month to follow up.
In a statement on June 26, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it was working with Bangladesh to verify the identities and documents of the Rohingya refugees who have fled Myanmar. The refugee agency had recently signed deals with both countries to help with the repatriation process.
“The verification exercise, which is expected to take approximately five to six months to complete, will help to consolidate a unified database for the purposes of identity management, documentation, protection, provision of assistance, population statistics and solutions,” the UNHCR said.
All refugees over the age of 12 will be issued plastic identification cards with anti-fraud features including their photographs and biometric data collected from iris scans and fingerprints.
The cards will be issued jointly by Bangladesh and the UNHCR and help the refugees access assistance services in Bangladesh.
“This exercise is a major step forward to establish the legal identity of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar,” said Kevin Allen, the UNHCR’s head of operations in Cox’s Bazar.
A senior government official in Cox’s Bazar, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, told The Irrawaddy that the data already collected by the DIP were of no help with repatriation because the department registered the refugees only as individuals.
“The data collected by the DIP will not help us in the repatriation process because we need household-based data of the Rohingyas. It was a hurried decision and the existing data are now worthless,” the official said.
The DIP’s director general, Major-General Masud Rezwan, declined to comment.
The Bangladesh army and board guard began registering the refugees on Sept. 11, soon after the exodus from Myanmar began in late August.
Maj-Gen Rezwan and Home Affairs Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal both claimed last year that the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration were assisting with the process.
The UNHCR estimates that 721,732 people crossed into Bangladesh from Myanmar since Aug. 25 and that the total number of Rohingya, including those who had come earlier, now stood at 887,661 from 204,354 families.
It says about 67 percent of the Rohingya are from Rakhine State’s Maungdaw Township and that 80 percent of the Rohingya refugees arrived between August and December.
The last Rohingyas, a group of 28, arrived on May 10.
Nur Khan Liton, an independent rights campaigner, said he was disappointed by the DIP’s registration drive and blamed its shortcomings on inexperience.
Now, he said, “We expect the government and UN bodies to complete a flawless registration.”
The DIP had previously told The Irrawaddy that its registration drive would prevent the refugees from obtaining Bangladesh passports and national identification cards.
On July 6, however, five Rohingya refugees were caught at an immigration checkpoint near the Indian border with newly issued Bangladesh passports and visas for India.
‘We thought their documents were suspicious because one of them could not give us details of the place he claimed to be coming from. And we started checking the passports of two others, and two more arrived at the queue at the same time,’ said Sub-Inspector Abdul Alim, who was running the checkpoint at the time.
He said police launched an investigation to find out how they obtained the passports and learned that four were issued in Cumilla District in May and that the other was issued in Feni District on Feb. 20. Both districts are in Chittagong Division, which borders Myanmar.
“I became suspicious once I checked his passport and saw he used an address in Darshana but his passport was issued in Cumilla,” which lies more than 300 km away, the sub-inspector said.
The five refugees were sent to a local police station.
Emdad Hossain, the station inspector, told The Irrawaddy that they had all arrived from Myanmar earlier this year and lived in a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar.
“They are all in our custody and we are discussing what action should be taken against them,” he said.
Cox’s Bazar police authorities say they have foiled the attempts of more than 54,761 Rohingya refugees to flee the camps since September, and that 3,348 refugees who tried to evade registration have been sent back to Cox’s Bazar from across the country.
“We rescued them and sent them to camps where they have to live under our supervision,” said Afruzul Hoque Tutul, an assistant police superintendent for Cox’s Bazar.
He said police were also holding regular meetings with passenger bus owners to prevent Rohingya from leaving the camps.
Since September, Bangladeshi authorities have set up several checkpoints in Cox’s Bazar to monitor and control the movement of the Rohingya, but many have still managed to leave.
At a press conference on July 17, Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, the home affairs minister, said many Rohingya refugees were obtaining and using false identification numbers but added that “as soon as we are informed we are cancelling them.”