Bangladesh Heightens Scrutiny of NGOs in Cox's Bazar

By Muktadir Rashid   20 March 2018

DHAKA, Bangladesh — Bangladeshi authorities are placing local and foreign aid workers in the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar under added scrutiny to root out groups working without proper visas or promoting religion.

Bangladesh’s elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and Cox’s Bazar district police have detained more than 60 foreign nationals to review their work permits and visas. They were all released after providing written statements explaining why they were not carrying the required documents.

It follows a meeting on the work of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Cox’s Bazar on Feb. 4 chaired by the district’s then-deputy commissioner, Ali Hossain.

The meeting ended with 13 new rules for NGOs to follow, including that they stop working in the camps each day by 5 p.m. They must also now secure permission from authorities before working in medical camps and “child-friendly zones.”

“We are monitoring their activities because of various [media] reports, including of religious motivational activities,” district Deputy Commissioner Muhammad Mahidur Rahman told The Irrawaddy.

At the meeting, a committee was also formed to supervise the NGOs’ work.

“We received a number of allegations and they are under investigation. We will have a meeting at the end of March with both local and international organizations and will make public what they are actually doing,” said district Assistant Commissioner Akramul Siddiq, the committee’s top representative in Ukhia, home to the largest of the refugee camps.

Nearly 700,000 people, the vast majority of them Rohingya, have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh since late August, when militant attacks on security posts in northern Rakhine State sparked a massive clearance operation by Myanmar’s security forces.

A number of daily newspapers in Bangladesh have reported that local and international NGOs have been overpricing relief materials meant for the refugees.

Detained and Questioned

Law enforcement officials said they were worried by reports that some charities were promoting their religious beliefs among the refugees, most of who are Muslim but include Buddhists and Hindus.

“More than 350 Rohingya Muslims have converted to Christianity without changing their Muslim names for safety. We have interrogated a top worker of a Dhaka-based Catholic charity working in Cox’s Bazar about its activities. But the worker was released because voluntary religious conversion is not considered a crime in our country,” a district police official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Security and intelligence agencies have interrogated a number of aid workers, most of them from faith-based groups. Police said some Islamic charities have had their activities reviewed as well to determine whether they have been encouraging extremist views.

Visa Troubles

The detention of more than 60 foreign aid workers over recent months has raised tensions with Bangladesh’s development partners as well.

On Feb. 23, police detained for eight hours 11 foreigners working for Doctors Without Borders and the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency who were on their way to a camp in Ukhia.

“We detained them and handed them over to the local police station because they failed to show proper documents and original passports,” said Major Ruhul Amin, the RAB company commander in Cox’s Bazar.

In a statement released the day its staff was detained, Doctors Without Borders country chief Pavlo Kolovos said his NGO — which has worked in Bangladesh for the past 25 years — was fully registered in Bangladesh and remained committed to complying with all applicable regulations.

Of the 11, two were British and two were Italian. The others were from Norway, Brazil, the Netherlands, South Korea, Kenya, Belgium and Turkey.

In a separate incident in mid-January, two aid workers from Myanmar were transferred to Dhaka without explanation.

Most recently, on March 11, at least 39 foreign aid workers were detained for lacking proper travel documents.

The same day, The Dhaka Tribune quoted Andrea Manenti of the British Red Cross as saying: “We have been hearing for the last two, three weeks that Bangladeshi authorities are stopping the foreign aid workers on their way to the camps. But today was the first time I faced this. I was supposed to provide sanitation, but I am stuck here with my entire team.”

Officials from the police force’s Special Branch said the aid workers needed work permits and work visas to carry out their relief activities in the camps.

According to the Special Branch, more than 1,700 foreigners are currently staying in the city of Cox’s Bazar. It says two-thirds of them are working for local and international NGOs and the rest on various power projects currently under construction.

A Special Branch official, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak with the media, said the problem was with the types of visas many aid workers were applying for.

“Work permits are a must if you are employed here. But the process is too long, so many aid workers get visas on arrival, causing the trouble,’ the official said.

“We just want to encourage the aid agencies. How can we allow any foreigner to work without a work permit?” said Afruzul Haque Tutul, a deputy district police chief, adding that authorities would continue to conduct random checks.

On March 12, United Nations Resident Coordinator Mia Seppo held an urgent meeting with Home Ministry officials to discuss how the visa process could be eased for aid workers.

“The government is working on ways to simplify the visa process…. We hope the problem will be solved shortly,” said a Bangladeshi official who works closely with the refugees and donor agencies and asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the talks.

The head of the Department of Immigration and Passports, Major General Masud Rezwan, could not be reached for comment because he was out of the country.

Leading Bangladeshi rights activist Nur Khan Liton, who has been following the Rohingya crisis over the years, said the government should immediately stop hindering the NGOs in their work.

“If you have a specific allegation, prosecute them. Otherwise, such detentions will give the wrong message to foreign friends,” he said. “If possible, please issue a visa within 24 hours.”

Muktadir Rashid is a Dhaka-based journalist contributing to The Irrawaddy.