Guest Column

The Quiet Rohingya Population Explosion in Cox’s Bazaar

By Tony Waters 16 February 2023

The largest refugee exodus from Rakhine occurred over five years ago, in August 2017. Ever since, international policies for the Rohingya have insisted on voluntary repatriation to Myanmar as the solution for what was then one million and is now 1.1 million refugees living in and around Cox’s Bazaar.

In 2017-2018, Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh became home to the biggest refugee camps in the world. Much ink was then spilled over how much blame should be apportioned to the Tatmadaw and how much to Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD government. Since then, there has been the COVID epidemic and the February 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar, and the issue has faded from the international press. And very quietly, at least 100,000 new refugees were added to the camp population due to a surging birth rate.

But in global terms, what was once the most important refugee crisis in the world was exceeded by the millions leaving Syria, Venezuela, and Ukraine, and who have been accepted albeit begrudgingly into societies of the Middle East, Europe, and Latin America. And still, the policy of the international community for the Rohingya is that all must repatriate to Myanmar as soon as possible.

A repatriation policy, even before the 2021 coup, was foolish. Mass repatriation would have further victimized the Rohingya and destabilized Rakhine, even before the Tatmadaw sent the NLD government into prison, exile, and revolt after February 1, 2021. The reaction to a mass repatriation would destabilize the border region in a way that risks direct confrontation between the Burmese and Bangladesh militaries. So it is a good thing that the refugees have not yet returned.

Nevertheless, the international community continues with its argument for mass voluntary repatriation to Myanmar, pointing out, accurately, that Myanmar’s military governments perpetrated the expulsions in the first place, so justice demands that they restore Rohingya rights. This is true in a legalistic sense, but given the political situation in Rakhine in particular, it is foolish. The Rohingya situation still contains the seeds for further humanitarian catastrophe.

Dangers in Cox’s Bazaar

To continue claiming that the Cox’s Bazaar refugee camps are the biggest in the world seems quaint in the context of refugee exoduses from Ukraine, Venezuela, and Syria. Oddly enough, these three crises, which involve vastly more refugees than the Rohingya situation, are dealt with better by the international community.

In large part this is because Europe accepts the Ukrainian refugees as a regional problem; Latin America accepts the Venezuelans as a regional problem; and the Middle East and Europe (especially Turkey) accept the Syrian exodus as a regional problem. This means that many refugees get relief supplies from the international community, labor markets support others, and integration programs where refugees seek work until they can return voluntarily to their home country are common. This strains the capacity of countries like Turkey, Germany, and Colombia to protect refugees.

In contrast, the Rohingya crisis is seen as a Bangladeshi and Myanmar problem, which permits other South Asian and ASEAN countries to look away and the UNHCR to maintain it is still “Working towards and preparing for the sustainable return of the Rohingya refugees… to Myanmar.”

But working toward such a goal is dangerous and ill-advised. Cox’s Bazaar remains vulnerable to typhoons, as well as the predictable dangers found in refugee camps everywhere. In Cox’s Bazaar, the dangers are of young men becoming radicalized in the isolated refugee camp environment by Islamicists who appeal to legitimate grievances.

For young women, there are babies, lots of them! As in most crises where refugees are from rural areas, babies are being born at a rate that means the 1 million camp population will become 2 million in about 2040, just 17 years from now. And finally is the fact that Cox’s Bazaar lies in the Bay of Bengal, where the world’s most destructive typhoons strike, as Bangladesh and Myanmar are well aware; massively destructive typhoons are central to the histories of both countries.

Refugee radicalization

Radicalization in refugee camp situations is common and predictable. The massive refugee camp that is the Gaza Strip of Palestine is an excellent example. This camp has been a source of political instability since it was established in 1948. Radicalized Rwandan refugee camps in central Africa triggered attacks on Congo by the Rwandan government in the 1990s, starting a regional war that has killed millions. In Thailand, refugee camps along the Cambodian border were used as bases by Cambodian factions from 1978 to the 1990s. The point is that young men coming of age in abject isolated refugee camps are vulnerable to militia recruiters feeding on injustices embedded in any refugee situation. That this is already happening in the Cox’s Bazaar camps should be of little surprise to the international community, Bangladesh, or Myanmar.

The reality is that the longer a refugee camp lasts, the more likely that groups of its aimless young boys will join militia movements and criminal gangs. This typically begins a year or two after arrival, as it has with the Rohingya. The process will accelerate when, 15-20 years after the camps are established, the many boys born during the period after resettlement come of age to carry guns.

The militaries of both Bangladesh and Myanmar are well aware of the security threat presented by the massive refugee camps near a sensitive border. The international community should be aware of the potential for escalation and conflict, including between the two nations, although the international community seems oblivious. Militia recruitment is less likely when refugee populations are away from borders, dispersed, and young men are offered the chances of schooling and jobs in a manufacturing or service economy.

Refugee baby booms and busts

The reason the Rohingya will have a lot of soldiers in 15-20 years is that they are a rural farming population locked up in refugee camps, who still have high birth rates. What is more, the flight in 2017-2018 likely meant that the most vulnerable, including the elderly and the very young, died enroute or remained behind, and never arrived in Cox’s Bazaar. But the refugee mothers did arrive, and like most refugee populations, immediately began having more children. Bangladesh’s Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal reported there are now about 35,000 births in the camps per year. This rate is expected to accelerate, no matter how aggressive the birth control programs are. This was the experience with Rwandan refugees who were provided with aggressive birth control programs in 1994-1996 that did not work. It was also the case with refugees from Laos and Cambodia who left for Thailand and the United States in the 1980s and 1990s.

Refugee women who lose babies and pregnancies through the stresses of flight and resettlement deeply desire children. That situation, plus the fact that the weak, sick, and elderly died and remained behind, means that if nothing is done in Cox’s Bazaar, the population growth rate will likely reach 3% per year, as it has in other refugee populations. In the case of the Rohingya, this means births will exceed deaths by about 30,000 per year, and the population will double in size every 23 years or so.

Demography for a refugee population like the Rohingya can indeed be destiny. It is easy to project how many school places, how many factory laborers, and how many soldiers will be available for militia recruitment in the next 10, 20, or 30 years. Basic math also tells us that when the population growth rate reaches 3% per year, there will be another million refugees in Cox’s Bazaar in just 23 years, even if there is no further catastrophe.

The obvious solution

There is an obvious short-term solution to the Rohingya situation and the threat from typhoons, military confrontation, baby booms, and dependency in the Cox’s Bazaar camps. That solution is for the global community, and particularly countries in Asia, to resettle the Rohingya from Cox’s Bazaar into the cities of the broader region.

Since the Rohingya exodus in 2017, two far larger refugee crises have been dealt with in this fashion. The 7 million “refugees and migrants” who left Venezuela are now in Colombia, and other Latin American countries. Eight million or more have fled mostly Ukraine to countries in Europe and Central Asia since 2021. And 6-7 million Syrian refugees have been absorbed by countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Germany. Turkey is now unusually vulnerable since it has taken the greatest number; tragically, 1.7 million of them are in the 10 provinces affected by the massive earthquake that struck earlier this month.

The irony for Asia today is that baby booms like the Rohingya population explosion are becoming a phenomenon of the past. The Rohingya’s rural Asian counterparts are shrinking rapidly with mass urbanization. In Asia’s cities, birth rates are exceedingly low, and countries like Thailand, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea have high demand for unskilled labor. To compensate, they find ways for rural peoples from places like Myanmar to enter their country (legally and illegally), to fill labor shortages in the factory and service sectors. Somehow, though, the Rohingya refugee camps still exist, keeping a potential source of much-needed service and factory workers away from the workplace.

The problem of Myanmar politics

Myanmar politics are of course what caused the Rohingya exodus, not Bangladesh politics, or the Rohingya themselves. Obviously, fairness dictates that the Rohingya have a right to return to Myanmar, and their land restored. This is true in a moral sense. But what is morally perfect does not always equate to responsible politics. Insisting on a perfect moral solution can lead to foreseeable problems, such as militia threatening regional peace, soaring birth rates, and annual risk from the Bay of Bengal’s typhoons.

The right of return is still there for people who wait out the chaos in their own country after resettling abroad, even for decades. Some Southeast Asians waited a generation before returning to Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia from the United States in recent years. Indeed, Bangladesh is among countries that know the refugee problem best – millions of Bangladeshis fled to India during and after the revolution in 1971. The current prime minister was herself a refugee in India for a few years in the 1980s. The refugees returned because the Bangladesh Revolution ended quickly. The Rohingya, Venezuelans, Ukrainians, and others may not be so lucky, though. The world should handle the Rohingya according to the situation they are in, not the morally perfect one wished for. For the Rohingya crisis, this means sharing the burden across the region, just as is now happening in Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.

Tony Waters is the author of Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001) and has written about refugee issues since the 1980s, and for The Irrawaddy since 2018. He taught sociology at California State University, Chico, and Peace Studies at Payap University in Thailand before moving to his current post at Leuphana University in Germany. His latest book is a translation from Thai, The Man from Bangkok: San Francisco Culture in the 1960s by Rong Wongsavun.