The Platform

The refugee settlement in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. (Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC)

5 years have passed since the Rohingya refugee influx in 2017. More than a million Rohingya refugees are living in squalid conditions in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh making it the largest refugee settlement in the world. The increasing rate of trans-border crime in those camps is not only making the Rohingya vulnerable but also threatening the security of the region.

During a recent rally demanding repatriation back to Myanmar, community leader Sayed Ullah was heard telling a crowd, “We don’t want to stay in the camps. Being refugees is not easy. It’s hell. Enough is enough. Let’s go home.”

With no sign of repatriation combined with a lack of economic opportunities and the difficulty in maintaining law and order in overcrowded camps, frustrated Rohingya are increasingly becoming involved in criminal activities or being targeted by criminal groups.

Currently, over a dozen armed criminal gangs are operating in the camps. According to law enforcement, some groups are engaged in murder, rape, kidnapping, drug smuggling, and human trafficking. Fighting over control of the camps is also becoming a security concern. A Rohingya refugee said in an interview, “Everything seems calm in the daytime. After sunset, the situation becomes fully different.” There is little surveillance in the camps at night which has given some gangs breathing room to operate at will.

Citing the police, in the last two and half years, more than 50 Rohingya have been killed in clashes between armed gangs. Recently, police have recovered assault rifles which indicates a worsening security situation in the camps. At night, Rohingya women are also taken from their shelters. At least 59 women have been raped. As crimes often go unpunished, no one in the camps has the courage to speak up against the criminals. Sometimes, for their own security, Rohingyas themselves, including children become engaged in smuggling, narcotics trafficking, and other crimes.

It is believed that the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Rohingya insurgent group active in the camps, made contact with Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh. ARSA is not only relying on arms like assault rifles but also gaining support through other means. More than 500 madrassas in the Rohingya camps are said to be controlled by ARSA affiliates which will help ARSA to gain sympathy, spread propaganda, and extend its network.

A threat to South Asian security

Since Cox’s Bazar provides a strategic route for smuggling and shelter to refugees who lack economic alternatives, the bordering Rohingyas camps are turning into a breeding ground for criminalities and the insecurity in the camps can threaten regional security.

Cox’s Bazar is used as a direct route from eastern India to Nepal for arms smugglers to reach Indian and Nepali customers. The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), an insurgent group seeking independence from India, also buys arms from China and smuggles them using Bangladeshi ports and overland to India.

The Naf River, the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar, is also the busiest drug route in the region. Almost 80% of ya ba, known as “bikers’ caffeine,” a mix of methamphetamine and caffeine, enters Bangladesh through Naikhyangchhari, and some of which is stored in the camps before being distributed.

Besides drug trafficking, Rohingyas are also taking part in trans-border crime, including human trafficking, extremism, and arms smuggling and the camps can be a potential base for extremist activities and the insecurity in the camps and border could create insecurity for South Asia. And there is a growing concern over the recruitment of refugees by extremist networks like Hizb-ut Tahrir and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, as well as by radical Islamist groups like Hefazat-e-Islam.

From a security perspective, ensuring the security of Rohingyas is directly linked to the security of the region. Though Bangladesh has taken several measures to ensure the security of these displaced people, it is tough to maintain law and order in the densely populated camps near the border. Therefore, the safe, sustainable, and dignified return of these displaced people is the only solution. Rohingya refugees have also expressed their desire to go home. Bangladesh, as well as the international community, should act together to facilitate Rohingya repatriation to ensure the security of Rohingya as well as the region before it’s too late.

Nishat Tasnim is an independent Researcher on Security Studies. She has completed her BSS in International Relations from the University of Dhaka. She also holds an MSS from the University of Dhaka with a specialization in Global Security Studies.