Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh are cramped with sanitation problems, shortages of food, water and medicine. The situation is no better than what most of the Rohingya used to experience in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, their homeland.
Myanmar’s military offensive, targeting the Rohingya, sent more than 600,000 members of the mainly Muslim ethnic minority fleeing to Bangladesh since late August. Most of them have been placed in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.
Despite clear instructions from the government, many Rohingya are living with locals in Teknaf upazila, mainly in exchange for money, to avoid hardship of camp life.
In some cases, they are staying with relatives, who had been living in Bangladesh for years.
The Rohingya people do not look so different from locals and their language also sounds similar to that of Cox’s Bazar dialect, making it particularly difficult for administration officials and members of security agencies to separate them.
“Only people from the Chittagong region can detect the difference between the Rohingya and locals,” said Teknaf social worker Adbur Rahman.
Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which does not recognise the Rohingya, has forced them to live in apartheid-like condition for decades.
Rohingya from Rakhine’s Maungdaw were the first to arrive in late August after Myanmar launched ‘security operations’, saying it was responding to insurgent attacks.
Many from the first batch took shelter in their relatives’ houses in Teknaf, locals said.
Police see the refugees staying outside designated camps as security threats. On October 19, two Rohingya brothers stabbed a local at Leda following an altercation. The man died couple of days later.
“Several thousand refugees are living outside the camps,” a police officer of Teknaf police station said.
The Dhaka Tribune met one such refugee Halima Khatun, who hails from Maungdaw’s Fakira Bazar area, who was travelling from Teknaf to Ukhiya’s Morichya union on Tuesday.
“Why should I choose the harder option when I have relatives in Teknaf, Morichya and Cox’s Bazar town?” she asked.
Halima, clad in a burqa, said she did not take part in the biometric registration and regularly travelled to Teknaf, Ukhiya and Cox’s Bazar.
Her sister-in-law Lamiya Begum said her relatives would return once peace returned. “They came here in 2012 and 2015 during ethnic tensions and later went back after the situation returned to normal.”
But it is far from clear when the tension will subside in the Rakhine and when the forcibly displaced Rohingya will be able to go back home.
Bangladesh Home Ministry, in a statement on Wednesday, said Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi had told Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal that her government was working on the repatriation process.
But the process itself is murky as no details on how it will be conducted have been disclosed. It is believed that Myanmar would seek documents from the Rohingya to prove their citizenship but that could be problematic. Documents of many Rohingya were either lost or were destroyed in fire set by the army.
Dhaka and Naypyidaw will form a Joint Working Group regarding the repatriation process by the end of November.
Many Rohingya, who registered biometrically in the refugee camps, are staying outside.
Nur Kamal from Maungdaw’s Saheb Bazar area is one of them. He is enlisted at Leda camp and collects reliefs from aid organisations regularly but does not live there.
About a week ago, a joint taskforce found 15 Rohingya at the house of Teknaf Upazila Chairman Zafor Ahmed.
Executive Magistrate Md Ehsan Murad, who led the drive, said they had information that many Rohingya were staying with locals instead of designated camps.
Teknaf Upazila Nirbahi Officer Zahid Hossain Siddique told the Dhaka Tribune that he was not sure how many Rohingya were hiding among locals.
“We are continuing our drive and are making regular announcements over loudspeakers asking locals not to shelter the Rohingya,” he said.