DHAKA, Bangladesh — Authorities, aid workers and refugees say despair and strife — and the fear of repatriation, or relocation to a desolate island — are driving a growing number of Rohingya to flee Bangladesh’s refugee camps, even the country, amid tightening restrictions on their movement.
Speaking with The Irrawaddy last week, a number of Bangladeshi government officials said many Rohingya were leaving the camps in search of “better living,” and that many were trying to obtain Bangladeshi passports from various regional offices of the Department of Immigration and Passports (DIP).
On Thursday, police stopped a 16-year-old Rohingya girl from a Cox’s Bazar camp at a passport office in the port city Narayanganj, about 30 km from Dhaka.
Azizul Hoque, the inspector of the Siddhirganj police station in Narayanganj, said a 55-year-old man from eastern Comilla District arrived with the girl on Wednesday and that they went to the DIP office the next day to get her a passport.
“The man introduced himself as her father and applied for her passport,” Azizul Hoque said.
But staff saw that the girl could not speak Bangla and noticed that the application had been submitted with a false address in Narayanganj District.
The inspector said the girl had come to Bangladesh after the Aug. 25 militant attacks on security posts in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, which triggered a massive military and police crackdown on the area’s Muslim communities. Some 700,000 Muslim Rohingya have since fled Myanmar for Bangladesh.
Police filed a case against the man under the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act, and a magistrate court placed him in pre-trial detention. The court also took a statement from the girl, who explaining how and why she was brought to the passport office. Police are still investigating to determine whether any other people were involved.
“The girl told us that she was arranging the passport for her travel to Saudi Arabia for a job. She was basically lured by fraudsters…. We found out that her mother is in a Cox’s Bazar camp and we are trying to communicate with her to send her daughter back,” Azizul Hoque told The Irrawaddy on Saturday.
On March 3, police stopped another teenage Rohingya girl at a passport office in Rajshahi City in northern Bangladesh.
Humayun Kabir, the chief of Chandrima Police Station, told The Irrawaddy: “We could not catch the person who brought the girl here. The girl could not speak Bangla, so we could not get details about her. But she was brought here by a person from Cox’s Bazar to arrange her passport. We sent the girl back to the camps in police protection.”
DIP officials told The Irrawaddy that similar incidents had occurred in Mymensingh, Noakhalia, Chittagong and elsewhere.
In Chittagong, passport officer Abu Noman Md Zakir Hossain said the DIP had a three-tier verification system and that his office had confiscated applications from 11 Rohingya who submitted forged documents in the past five-and-a-half months.
Of the 11 applicants, only two had arrived in Bangladesh since late August.
“Their main reason [for wanting passports] is to go abroad,” Abu Noman Md Zakir Hossain said. “We have been asked to tighten our verification process, and we decided that no passport will be issued without police verification.”
Cox’s Bazar police authorities have foiled attempts by more than 50,000 Rohingya to flee the refugee camps since September, and 3,014 others 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,” Cox’s Bazar deputy police chief Afruzul Hoque Tutul said.
Since September, Bangladeshi authorities have set up several checkpoints in Cox’s Bazar to monitor the movement of the Rohingya, but many have still managed to leave. Getting a passport in Cox’s Bazar appears to be difficult — the local passport office has caught dozens of people trying to use forged documents — so some are trying their luck at DIP offices elsewhere, often using forged documents and fake addresses.
Most of those who have been caught and returned to the Cox’s Bazar camps were not included in the registration process now underway under the supervision of the DIP
As of last week, the DIP had registered about 1,095,000 “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals.” Three offices in the Cox’s Bazar camps are continuing the biometric registration process.
“Once the registration is completed, we will blacklist their data on the server so that none of them can get a passport or other services,” said a senior Home Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Norol Mostafa arrived in Bangladesh from Myanmar in the first week of September with eight relatives. They have been trying to leave their refugee camp ever since.
Norol Mostafa told the Irrawaddy that his father and grandmother last tried to leave in February to get his grandmother medical attention for her eyes, but the police intercepted them and sent them back. ‘”So we are still in the camp,” he said.
Why are Rohingya Leaving the Camps?
Bangladesh Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Abul Kalam told The Irrawaddy that the reasons the refugees are leaving the camps vary from individual to individual, but that “many of them want to move freely because the camps have become suffocating for them.”
He said most of them have become dependent on aid.
A police officer and a relief worker who interact with the Rohingya refugees regularly said they believed that internal conflicts, enmity and crime are forcing many Rohingya to leave the camps and rent housing elsewhere, though police banned renting to Rohingya back in September.
Officials with Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion said they have captured 13 thieves in and around the refugee camps in Ukiya and Tekhnaf. Six of them were Rohingya who were robbing other Rohingya with the help of locals.
District police said 13 murders have taken place inside the camps since September. Investigators believe they were the result of internal feuds, disputes dating back to Myanmar or power struggles within the camps. Another 24 people have been named in arms cases.
“The Rohingya have not been given psycho-social counseling since they arrived here for the trauma they experienced,” said Abul Kashem, executive director of Help Cox’s Bazar, a local charity. He said that was another reason why refugees were leaving the camps, though he added that Bangladesh was doing the best it could with its limited resources.
According to the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission, Myanmar has approved for return only 556 Rohingya from a list of 8,032 refugees provided by Bangladesh in mid-February and wants more time before the repatriations begin.
Bangladesh is meanwhile preparing a list of another 10,000 Rohingya, according to an April 1 report by the Daily Manabzamin.
Apart from repatriation, the government has tasked its navy with building cyclone shelters and to develop a 10,000-acre site on the island of Bhasanchar to relocate some of the Rohingya. A Foreign Affairs Ministry official has said the government would involve the UN in the relocation process.
Bhasanchar, which sits in the estuary of the Meghna River, is a one-hour boat ride from Sandwip, the nearest inhabited island, and two hours from Hatiya, one of the country’s largest islands.
“Many of us say they do not want to return to their homeland, and no one wants to go to Bhasanchar, so they are trying to leave the camps in advance,” Syed Alam, a leader of the Kutupalong refugee camp, told The Irrawaddy.
He said Rohingya from Myanmar were still arriving.
“From what I’ve seen and heard from people — no access to health services, concerns about protection, continued displacements — conditions are not conducive to return,” Ursula Mueller, the UN’s assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, told Reuters after a recent six-day visit to Myanmar.
In 2012 and 2013, Shahparir Dwip island was used as a transit point to reach large fishing trawlers that would transport refugees to Malaysia through Thai waters. But Thailand has cracked down on the trafficking in recent years under international pressure.
In late September an alleged trafficker on Shahparir Dwip said that those who used to move the refugees by sea were reluctant to do so again after some of them were killed or arrested by authorities.
Between February 14 and March 4, eight people in Cox’s Bazar were sent to jail for one to six months for helping Rohingya enter Bangladesh across the Naff River, which separates the country from Myanmar.
Bangladesh Coast Guard spokesman Abdullah Al Maruf said two ships were deployed around the clock along the coastal belt to check the traffickers.