Dhaka Cracks Down on Black Market Activities in Rohingya Camps

By Muktadir Rashid   25 March 2019

DHAKA — The Bangladesh government has imposed restrictions on the operation of jewelry and computer shops, as well as pharmacies, at makeshift Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar after intelligence agencies warned that illegal businesses disguised as legitimate traders were flourishing.

“The decision has been taken based on information from the intelligence agencies… It’s an ongoing process,” Bangladeshi Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam told The Irrawaddy in Cox’s Bazar on Sunday evening.

The commissioner said a few jewelry shops and pharmacies had already been shut, and the rest would be closed by the second week of next month.

It’s not possible to monitor everybody, but those found to be engaged in “disturbing” behavior would be targeted, the commissioner said.

He said setting up small shops was normal, but action would be taken against those found to be creating a problem.

In July 2018, the Dhaka Tribune daily reported that many jewelry stores were really a front for illegal foreign exchange operations, with Rohingya being the primary customers.

In the report, a jewelry shop owner admitted that the Rohingya refugees were receiving financial aid from relatives abroad, and that he was exchanging that money into Bangladeshi taka for a hefty commission.

Some of the other jewelers who recently set up shop in the area are trading in drugs and other contraband, according to the report.

More than 50 jewelry shops sprung up around the Rohingya camps in the Ukhiya and Teknaf sub-districts of Cox’s Bazar between November 2017 and July 2018, it said.

During a visit, The Irrawaddy also found a number of jewelry shops set up near Rohingya camps in Kutupalong, Balukhali and Thaingkhali, among other places.

It was not clear why pharmacies and computer shops were also being targeted.

New Age, another Dhaka-based daily, on Monday reported that officials from the Bangladesh National Taskforce on Implementation of National Strategy on Myanmar Refugees and Undocumented Myanmar Nationals believed some Rohingya at Kutupalong and Balukhali camps in Cox’s Bazar, in association with some local people, were operating “illegal trade in the guise of ornament, computer and medicine businesses”.

Earlier, the local administration took a lenient approach to the jewelry, computer and medicine shops on humanitarian grounds, they said.

Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque, the chief of the National Taskforce, said his government had already confirmed that some shops were engaged in smuggling, according to the New Age report.

He said directives had been issued for the district administration and other agencies to take necessary measures.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Sunday evening, Cox’s Bazar district police chief ABM Masud Hossain sharply contradicted the allegations of widespread illegal trade, saying that a large number of plainclothes officers had been deployed in each of the camps to monitor whether any crimes were being committed.

He acknowledged allegations that some of the pharmacies were selling “Burmese” stimulant pills or tobacco, but said most of the shops were selling “daily necessities”.

“Many of their Rohingya relatives live abroad… It is absurd to run a hundi business [a traditional non-banking money transfer mechanism] openly in the camps,” Masud said.

Shomshu Alom, the chairman of Voice of Rohingya, a recently formed group championing refugees’ rights, told The Irrawaddy that most of the shops sell clothing or daily necessities.

“We are not sure whether any shop is doing illegal business here. We will definitely look into the allegations if so,” Shomshu told The Irrawaddy.

More than 700,000 Rohingya entered Bangladesh after fleeing security clearance operations by the Myanmar military in Rakhine State starting on Aug. 25, 2017.

The most recent Rohingya influx took the number of undocumented Myanmar nationals and registered refugees in Bangladesh to about 1,116,000, according to estimates by UN agencies and the Bangladeshi Foreign ministry.