Long-Persecuted Rohingya Find Refuge, But Not Acceptance, In Bangladesh | KUOW News and Information

Long-Persecuted Rohingya Find Refuge, But Not Acceptance, In Bangladesh

Apr 14, 2017
Originally published on June 10, 2017 2:21 am

The beautiful beaches of Teknaf, along the Bay of Bengal in southern Bangladesh, are almost completely untouched by humans. Wide, with fine-grained brown and gray sand, the shore looks as if it stretches along the sea forever. In fact, the Bangladeshi government bills it as the world's longest beach.

So naturally, developers are lining up to build there and have literally staked out their claims on signs along the road, Marine Drive. When the highway is finished, it will link this place to Cox's Bazar some 50 miles to the north.

"We look for other tourists from all over the world. We have a goal to attract them," says Anwar Ul Islam, who heads the Cox's Bazar Development Authority.

One of the first goals is to turn the domestic Cox's Bazar Airport into an international airport. That work, he says, should be finished in two more years.

When it's done, he is confident foreign tourists will come and that Cox's Bazar will give Thailand and the Philippines a run for their money — bringing badly needed jobs and investment to a country of more than 150 million people that doesn't have enough of either.

But there's a potential problem with that plan: hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees live in that area.

Since the 1970s, an estimated 500,000 of the Muslim minority group have fled to Bangladesh from neighboring Buddhist-majority Myanmar in several waves. In the last six months, some 70,000 Rohingya have arrived after the Myanmar military's latest crackdown against them. Refugees fleeing the country describe a brutal military campaign of murder, arson and mass rape against the long-persecuted minority.

Many of these refugees live unofficially in squatter camps near Cox's Bazar within a few miles of the beach.

That's not a big selling point for a go-to tourist destination, and Ul Islam knows it.

"It is an issue," he says. "The government has decided if we can relocate these Rohingya from Cox's Bazar ... to other places, it will be better."

Until then, the Rohingya are stuck; they're not allowed to move or work — not legally, at least.

At a brick factory a short drive from Cox's Bazar, the manager says that he hires Rohingya for the nastiest jobs: hauling the coal to bake the bricks.

"We don't recruit them. If they come looking for work, and we need people, we give them a job," he says.

He has even given one Rohingya employee a permanent job as a mechanic to keep the ovens cooking. Hassan — NPR is only using his first name because he is not supposed to be working — is 30 years old and fled Myanmar two years ago. This job, he says, is the best he's had in Bangladesh.

"The last job I had, the boss tried to cheat me and didn't give me my full salary," Hassan says. "He told me if I complained, he'd have someone hurt me. So I left and came here."

Hassan says he sends about half the $100 a month he earns back to his family still living in Myanmar. But many locals think that he, as a refugee, shouldn't have a job at all.

"We compete for the same jobs," says Habibur Rahaman, an 18-year-old Bangladeshi working at a construction site south of Cox's Bazar. "The more of them that come, the less opportunities we have to work and to make money."

He says employers can pay Rohingya half what Bangladeshis will accept, since they're working without authorization and have to take what they can get.

Rahaman's uncle Alauddin says he understands the Rohingya's problems across the border in Myanmar, but worries more about his own people.

"Our country is already poor. We don't need any more Rohingya coming here and making it worse," he says. "Not all Rohingya are bad, some are good. But they still take our jobs and some are involved in the illegal drugs trade, too."

There are other concerns. Some analysts worry that a new Rohingya insurgent group — the one blamed for the October and November attacks that prompted the Myanmar military's brutal crackdown — could start recruiting in the camps in southern Bangladesh and possibly use them as staging areas for attacks against the military in Myanmar.

If that happens, it could prompt another furious response from the military and potentially another wave of refugees.

Now, the government has a plan to relocate the Rohingya refugees to a remote island call Thengar Char, which lies some three hours away from the mainland. Local officials say parts of the island are underwater much of the year. The plan has been kicking around for a while, but in January, after the latest influx of refugees, the government said it was moving forward with the idea.

That decision alarmed the international aid community. It also caused fear among the Rohingya, says Abul Kashem, a Bangladeshi human rights activist who runs the NGO Help Cox's Bazar.

"Who would want to be sent to an island where the water swells up and people cannot live? None of them want to go to the island of Thengar Char," Kashem says.

Not Mohammad Ismail, a refugee who's been staying at one of the informal camps since February after fleeing Myanmar just before the new year.

"We feel safe here. We have already been tortured enough," he says. "We are already refugees. We don't want to move again. We will not go to Thengar Char."

Ismail says they would rather go back to Myanmar and face the military than go to the island.

Kashem hopes it doesn't come to that and that the plan is quietly scrapped — some humanitarian workers on the ground believe that's what will happen eventually.

But Kashem says he understands his people's growing unease with the number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. He says he also understands their complaints about competition for scarce resources. But he's more sympathetic to the plight of the Rohingya.

"They neither get support in their country, nor can they feel at home here in this country," he says. "They are really vulnerable. They are deprived of all their rights. Of education, country, religion and language. They are deprived of everything."

The Rohingya have no good options, he says. They can either stay here in squalid camps, barely surviving, or risk returning home to Myanmar and possible retribution from the Myanmar military. Not many have chosen the latter — which is why the number of Rohingya in Bangladesh just keeps growing.

With additional reporting by Bangladeshi journalist Muktadir Rashid.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's return to the story of the Rohingya. They're a Muslim minority group in Buddhist majority Myanmar. And they have been persecuted by that country's government for decades, so much so that many flee for something better somewhere else. Sometimes they go by boat south toward Malaysia or they go across the border into neighboring Bangladesh.

By some estimates, there are now more than 500,000 Rohingya stranded in Bangladesh which has grudgingly offered them refuge but not acceptance. As Michael Sullivan reports from southern Bangladesh, local patience is wearing thin.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: I'm walking down what will soon be the new highway that will link this place, Teknaf, with its beautiful beaches on the Bay of Bengal, with Cox's Bazar 50 miles up the road. And the developers have already staked out their claims alongside the road from when this road gets finished. And that's what the Bangladeshi government is hoping for. They're hoping that this will be the new beach tourist destination.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: How much?

SULLIVAN: Until then, Cox's Bazar will have to do, and it has its charms.

(SOUNDBITE OF JET SKIS)

SULLIVAN: A terrifying Jet Ski ride, for instance, on what's billed as the world's longest beach. And there's parasailing and pony rides, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES HONKING)

SULLIVAN: But it's still very much a work in progress. Getting to the beachside hotels can be a challenge on roads packed with rickshaws, motorbikes and really big buses on really narrow streets - but they're working on it. And Lieutenant Colonel Anwar Ul Islam, who heads the Cox's Bazar Development Authority, has big plans - starting with a new airport.

ANWAR UL ISLAM: We look for the tourists from all over the world. We have a goal to attract them. Yeah, that's why the airport is going to be the international airport.

SULLIVAN: So you're building a newer, bigger airport to accommodate more flights and bigger planes?

UL ISLAM: Yeah. Yes, big airplanes. Yeah.

SULLIVAN: And if that happens, he says, he's confident the foreign tourists will come, that Cox's Bazar will give Thailand and the Philippines a run for their money and bring badly needed jobs and investment in a country of more than 150 million that hasn't enough of either.

UL ISLAM: Yes, definitely, definitely.

SULLIVAN: But there's a problem. Almost all of those Rohingya refugees, they live in and around here, not a big selling point for a go-to tourist destination. And the colonel knows it.

UL ISLAM: It is an issue. It is an issue. Actually, the government has decided if we can relocate these Rohingya to another places, it will be better.

SULLIVAN: Better for the Rohingya if they get to a third country - like they want - and better for Bangladesh, too. Until then, they're stuck here, not allowed to move or even work - not legally, anyway. This is a brick factory a short drive from Cox's Bazar.

The brickmaking here labor intensive, the workers shaping, drying then baking the bricks that help fuel the construction boom in Cox's Bazar. The factory manager, Shah Jahan, says he hires Rohingya for the nastiest jobs - hauling the coal to bake the bricks.

SHAH JAHAN: (Through interpreter) We don't recruit them. If they come looking for work and we need people, we give them a job.

SULLIVAN: He's even given one Rohingya a permanent job as a mechanic to keep the ovens cooking. Hassan - we're only using his first name because he's not supposed to be working here - is 30 years old and fled here two years ago fearing arrest in Myanmar. And this job, he says, is the best he's had since he came here.

HASSAN: (Through interpreter) The last job I had, the boss tried to cheat me and didn't give me my full salary. He told me if I complained, he'd have someone hurt me. So I left and came here.

SULLIVAN: Hassan says he sends about half the hundred dollars a month he earns back to his family still living in Myanmar. But many locals think he shouldn't even have a job as a refugee. At a nearby construction site we meet two - Habibur Rahaman and Ala-uddin.

HABIBUR RAHAMAN: (Through interpreter) We compete for the same jobs. The more of them that come, the less opportunities we have to work and to make money. They'll also work for half the wages we get.

SULLIVAN: Ala-uddin is more blunt.

ALA-UDDIN: (Through interpreter) It's already poor. We don't need any more Rohingya coming here and making it worse. Not all Rohingya are bad, some are good, but they still take our jobs. And some are involved in the illegal drugs trade, too.

SULLIVAN: And not just the drug trade, some analysts worry a newly-formed Rohingya insurgent group could start recruiting in the camps here and use them as a staging area for attacks into Myanmar.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

SULLIVAN: In this video uploaded to YouTube, one of the group's alleged leader's calls for a Rohingya uprising against the Myanmar military. If that happens, it could prompt another furious response from the military and another wave of refugees.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

SULLIVAN: This might help explain the Bangladeshi government's announcement in January it was going ahead with plans to relocate the Rohingya refugees to a remote island some three hours away by boat. That announcement caused alarm in the international aid community and fear among the Rohingya.

ABUL KASHEM: (Through interpreter) They don't want to go to the island of Thengar Char.

SULLIVAN: Abul Kashem is an unlikely advocate for the Rohingya, a Bangladeshi human rights activist who runs the NGO Help Cox's Bazar.

KASHEM: (Through interpreter) Who would want to be sent to an island where the water swells up and people cannot live? None of them are willing to go to Thengar Char.

SULLIVAN: He's sympathetic to his countrymen's complaints about competition for scarce resources but he's more sympathetic to the Rohingya's plight.

KASHEM: (Through interpreter) They neither get support in their country, nor can they feel at home here in this country. They are really vulnerable. They're deprived of all the rights of education, country, religion and language. They're deprived of everything.

SULLIVAN: The Rohingya have no good options, he says - stay in squalid camps here barely surviving or risk returning home to Myanmar and retribution from the military. Of the 70,000 who fled since October, only a handful have chosen to go back. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MESSAGE TO BEARS' "HOPE")

GREENE: And our series on the Rohingya this week was produced by Ashley Westerman. You can find more of that reporting on the Rohingya and photos from their trip to southern Bangladesh at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MESSAGE TO BEARS' "HOPE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.