Is there a justification for barbed wire around the Rohingya camps?
On March 22, 2021, a massive fire ripped through the Rohingya refugee camps of Bangladesh. Whilst the camps have witnessed a large number of fires, this fire was different in terms of its scale and the huge numbers of people it affected. The camp context was also different because for the first time, there was the presence of barbed wire fencing in and around the camps, limiting both entry and exit for those engulfed in the inferno.
In the aftermath of the fire, refugees complained that the barbed wire fencing jeopardized their escape path and contributed to deaths, and separation from other family members.
Humanitarian organizations, Rohingya advocates, and others immediately called for the dismantling of the barbed wire fencing and demanded an investigation into how it had been allowed to proceed. For the Rohingya, the recent installation of barbed wire had further curtailed their freedom of movement and had extended surveillance and monitoring of the camps. The refugees had already complained of a variety of adverse outcomes.
Barbed wire had affected people’s daily routines, including access to markets, clinics, and hospitals. In many cases, people’s homes and shops have had to be demolished and rebuilt elsewhere to make way for the fencing. Community life had been disrupted in a multitude of ways.
Visiting relatives became a lottery depending on whether the camp gate would be open or not. Indeed, the entry gates became settings for arbitrary mobile phone checks, beatings and extortion. It affected livelihoods as many could now go out to seek informal employment. Children’s access to playing areas near their homes was impeded. Distances to essential treatment centres became lengthy especially for pregnant women, the elderly, and the disabled.
In at least one case, known to this author, the additional time required to reach a hospital in an emergency may have cost the life of one young boy in Camp 2 East.
A changed landscape in the camps
The installation of barbed wire changed the landscape of the camps. The changes reflect and embody a certain politics. A rhetoric around Rohingya criminality and the need for “security” was deployed to justify the barbed wire. “Rohingya are a threat not just to Bangladesh but to South East Asia” was the key belief expressed at the meeting Parliamentary Defense Committee meeting which decided the plan.
There was no dialogue with the Rohingya themselves. There was no involvement of “the beneficiaries” of this “security” ring in the program design. There was no question at any point of being accountable to donors and partners let alone the affected community. There was no humanitarian framework that the authorities tried to sustain. With the deaths, injuries, and the many missing after this fire, the “security” idea behind the installation of barbed wire has literally gone up in smoke.
The actual boundary lines that were followed by the fencing were not based on a recognition of what people wanted or needed or what would be most practical or what would reduce future vulnerabilities. The installation took no cognizance of what would make health services accessible or less accessible.
The resources spent on the installation did not factor in the need to deliver a standard of humanitarian assistance (if that was the goal) that can be said to alleviate suffering or protect human dignity. Rather the very opposite. It did not matter if community life was disrupted. Or if community trust was further compromised. The whole process was indifferent to these concerns. Yet these should be at the heart of concerns about security.
For human rights organizations in Bangladesh and Rohingya advocates across the world, the curtailment of freedom of movement and the increased surveillance via CCTV and watchtowers gave cause for concern. Human Rights Watch and others rightly argued that the goals, ideals, and practices of justice and humanitarian action were subverted by the barbed wire installation.
It remains a moot point whether the UN protection agencies and those responsible for the management of refugees challenged the Bangladesh authorities sufficiently. In effect, they turned a blind eye. Six days after the initiation of the barbed wire plan by the Bangladesh army, Kelly Clements of UNHCR expressed the mildest of concerns and said that barbed wire “is not always the best answer in terms of security.”
The barbed wire fencing of the camps demonstrates that Bangladesh pays little regard to the notion of risk and security. Refugees are finding that they have become a means to an end. Going forward, there needs to be an acknowledgement that the frequent fires in the camps cannot be ignored, and that barbed wire fencing offers no security at all.
Shafiur Rahman is a journalist and documentary film-maker.