Rohingya refugees perform prayers as they attend a ceremony organized to remember the first anniversary of a military crackdown that prompted a massive exodus of people from Myanmar to Bangladesh, at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia on August 25, 2018. Photo: AFP / Dibyangshu Sarkar
Rohingya refugees perform prayers as they attend a ceremony organized to remember the first anniversary of a military crackdown that prompted a massive exodus of people from Myanmar to Bangladesh, at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia on August 25, 2018. Photo: AFP / Dibyangshu Sarkar

CHIANG MAI – They were told that they would be the first to be repatriated to Myanmar.

But when the first lot of 1,642 Rohingya Muslim refugees arrived on Bangladesh’s Bhasan Char island on December 3, they were herded into a huge, newly built settlement consisting of concrete living quarters, two hospitals, clinics, mosques, teaching centers, cyclone shelters, playgrounds and a police station.

Located 34 kilometers from the mainland, or a three-hour journey by boat, the island and what has been constructed there show that the Bangladeshi authorities are accepting the fact that they are stuck with a permanent refugee population. None of the estimated one million Rohingyas in Bangladesh are going back to Myanmar in the foreseeable future, if at all.

Bangladesh has spent US$350 million to develop the facility on Bhasan Char to transfer about 100,000 refugees to the island from the overcrowded refugee camps near the Myanmar border. The Rohingya there live in squalid conditions at 40,000 per square kilometer, so moving some to places where living conditions are less crowded makes humanitarian sense.

But Dhaka may have other reasons for relocating or splitting the Rohingya into smaller groups. The Daily Star newspaper reported on December 18 that the deteriorating security situation in the camps, including the involvement of some refugees in “drug smuggling, human trafficking and conflicts between refugee groups” is becoming a major government concern.

Map: Twitter

The report did not specify which groups were involved but several local sources say the activities of Hefazat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s most influential Islamic organization which has erected makeshift mosques and madrassas in the camps, have raised red flags in Dhaka.

Hefazat-e-Islami supports the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and is allied with Jamaat-e-Islami, which advocates for the introduction of sharia laws, the separation of sexes and death sentences for atheists.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed’s more secular Awami League (AL), which has ruled Bangladesh since 2009, will be challenged by the BNP and its allies at the next election scheduled for 2022.

An alliance led by AL scored a landslide victory at the 2018 election, winning 258 of the 350 seats in the national parliament (300 are directly elected and 50 are reserved for women) but there were widespread accusations of fraud and vote-rigging.

It remains to be seen what will happen in 2022, but the country’s delicate mix of religion and politics would likely change drastically if a new BNP-led government is elected. But the AL is finding it difficult to ignore the increasingly powerful Hefazat-e-Islami.

The organization is gaining ground across the country and AL may have to make concessions to appease the radicals who have widespread support, especially in the rural areas which AL will depend on to win the next election.

Hefazat-e-Islami’s influence in the refugee camps is known to be growing among frustrated and traumatized Rohingyas, which could fuel militancy not only in Bangladesh but across the wider region.

Rohingya refugees shout slogans at a protest against a disputed repatriation program at the Unchiprang refugee camp near Teknaf on November 15, 2018. Photo: AFP/Dibyangshu Sarkar

There is a rising danger that young Rohingyas could be recruited to carry out violent acts in neighboring countries including Myanmar, from where some 700,000 Rohingyas were driven out in so-called military “clearance operations” some rights groups have characterized as attempted “genocide.”

In the actual camps, Hefazat-e-Islami has held rallies calling for “the liberation” of Myanmar’s western Rakhine state and threatened to wage “jihad”, or holy war, if the Myanmar military does not “stop torturing the Rohingyas.”

In September 2017 — a month after the Myanmar military launched its assault following attacks by Rohingya militants on security outposts in northern Rakhine state— the Bangladesh High Commissioner to India, Syed Muazzem Ali, appealed to authorities in New Delhi to “help us for the sake of peace and security in our region.”

He implied that the security situation could worsen due to the refugees becoming “ground zero” for Islamist groups looking for fresh recruits.

The UN-led international community wants the Rohingyas to be repatriated to Myanmar. The UN’s refugee agency has voiced concern about whether the refugees who were — and are going to be — sent to Bhashan Char have and will be doing so voluntarily.

Apart from promises of “early repatriation”, refugees were reportedly also given 5,000 Bangladeshi Taka (US$58) each if they agreed to be relocated. The island may have much better facilities than the camps in southeastern Bangladesh, but it is flat, vulnerable to cyclones and prone to flooding.

The day after the first group of refugees was sent to Bhasan Char, UN High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Babar Baloch emphasized that his organization was not involved and that the refugees “did not have the information they needed to make free and informed decisions” about the relocation.

He did not mention anything about repatriation to Myanmar, but in March this year, Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, stated that “the problem is that things that need to be done there [in Myanmar], to create conditions for refugees to return from Bangladesh into Myanmar are too slow and not happening yet.”

Myanmar border guard police patrol the fence in the ‘no man’s land’ zone between the Myanmar and Bangladesh border. Photo: AFP/Phyo Hein Kyaw

He also cited reports of the Myanmar military laying landmines along the Bangladesh border and authorities “requiring returnees to provide proof of nationality.” That, Grandi said, is impossible as successive Myanmar governments since 1962 have “progressively stripped the Rohingya population of their political and civil rights, including citizenship rights.”

It may be argued that an estimated 200,000 Rohingyas were driven out in the late 1970s and about the same number in the early 1990s. After interventions by the UN, they were allowed to return.

At that time, Myanmar was an authoritarian, one-party state and the government did not have to worry about public opinion. Somewhat ironically, today’s more democratic Myanmar is much less willing to let the refugees return.

It’s not only that the number this time is much larger but no Myanmar politician, civilian or military would dare to lose whatever support he or she might have by advocating a return of the refugees from Bangladesh.

Many in Myanmar consider the refugees — who are often referred to pejoratively as “Bengalis” — are actually illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and therefore have no right to reside in the country.

Many observers believe that State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy’s landslide win at the November election owed in part to the fact that last December she went to defend, as the people see it, “the honor and dignity of the country” at The Hague.

Myanmar faces two separate lawsuits, one at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and another at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), for the 2017 campaign which forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh.

While rejecting accusations of “genocide”, Suu Kyi admitted that atrocities could have been committed but those would have to be tried in Myanmar, not international courts. Public sympathy for the Rohingyas in Myanmar is largely limited to some small marginal civil society organizations which, at least on this issue, lack significant popular support.

Part of the problem is that the ICJ, which handles issues between countries, has no mechanism to enforce its verdicts. Those would have to be passed by the UN Security Council, where permanent members China and Russia will most certainly exercise their veto rights to stop them.

And Myanmar is not a member of the ICC, which tries individuals for various crimes, so whatever that court decides will be mostly inconsequential.

Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi and military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Photo: AFP via EPA

Any Myanmar security force member who is eventually punished by the ICC will only have to avoid traveling to countries that have signed the Rome Statute, under which the court was set up in 1998. None of Myanmar’s closest allies – China, India, Japan and its partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – are among its signatories. Nor is the United States.

Outside pressure is not likely to work either as those allies are also opposed to any kind of bilateral or bloc-based sanctions or boycotts outside of the UN system. Even European and American diplomats have indicated in private conversations that they are reluctant to antagonize Myanmar’s leaders, as punitive actions would only drive the country further into the arms of China, which the West is trying to avoid.

A Palestine-like situation, with a permanent refugee population and the likelihood of radicalization of young disenfranchised refugees, is emerging in Bangladesh. The relocation of refugees to Bhasan Char, which has just begun, seeks to avoid such a scenario but the controversial move may anyway be too little, too late.