In August, Rohingya will mark five years since the clearance operations that caused their mass displacement from Myanmar to the camps in Cox’s Bazar. As the government of Bangladesh grows increasingly frustrated with a lack of progress toward their repatriation to Myanmar’s Rakhine State, worrying developments in the camps suggest it is leading efforts to coerce refugees into going back to avoid violating the principle of nonrefoulment.
Camp-based Rohingya make no secret of the fact that the community does not see their home as being in Bangladesh. This is despite the decades of persecution that they have faced in Myanmar, including systematic atrocities perpetrated in 2017 by the Myanmar military, also known as the Tatmadaw, with the intention of forcibly deporting them to Bangladesh. Since then, both the National League for Democracy-led government and, in the wake of a February 2021 coup, the military-led State Administrative Council (SAC), have consistently failed to create conditions conducive to safe and voluntary repatriations, preventing any returns to date.
The SAC pays lip service to repatriation, but as the very perpetrator of atrocities against Rohingya for decades, it cannot provide Rohingya with safety, rights, or a return to home villages, hundreds of which it torched. Instead, it offers return to “resettlement camps” ringed by barbed wire and guarded by its soldiers. As such, no formal repatriation process seems possible in the foreseeable future, much to the dismay of the Rohingya population languishing in the camps in Bangladesh.
Complicating the situation has been the increasing role of the Arakan Army (AA), which is thought to now control between 50 and 75 percent of Rakhine State, including areas where the Rohingya would elect to return. In the wake of a devastating conflict between the AA and the military that began in 2018, the state is being held together by a fragile ceasefire that has been in place since November 2020. This could collapse at any moment with devastating consequences for the civilians, including Rohingya, caught in the crossfire. In anticipation of a resumption of violence, the Tatmadaw have been approaching Rohingya to join the Tatmadaw to fight against the AA in exchange for some type of citizenship card.
Despite their deep passion to return home, the Rohingya in Bangladesh have nothing but bad options: return to SAC-run resettlement camps with no rights and risk getting caught in the middle of a war between the SAC and the AA or remain in the violence-ridden, virtual concentration camps that Bangladesh has built around them in Cox’s Bazar.
Efforts by Rohingya to express themselves on the topic of return have historically been met with brutal crackdowns from the government of Bangladesh. In 2019, Rohingya leader and chairman of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPH), Mohibullah, led an event to commemorate two years since the 2017 clearance operations in Myanmar and to demand conditions be made conducive for their return home. The event in Kutupalong camp was attended by hundreds of thousands of people in the camp in Cox’s Bazar and was focused on going home to Myanmar and grieving those lost in the violence.
While the event was approved in writing at the camp-level by the camp-in-charge and the refugee repatriation relief commissioner, media coverage of the event stirred outrage in Bangladesh. Authorities in Dhaka distanced themselves from the event, claiming no prior knowledge and removing the individuals that approved the event for being too sympathetic to the refugees. Importantly, the Bangladeshi authorities used the 2019 rally as the pretext to impose extreme measures against the Rohingya population, including increasing restrictions on movement and the erection of barbed wire fencing around the camps, shutting off internet access, clamping down on civil society groups and community-led schools, closing the office of ARSPH, and destroying camp-based markets. The deterioration reached a crescendo in September 2021 when Mohibullah was assassinated following years of death threats that the authorities and the U.N. refugee agency did nothing about.
It is in this context that the recent activities of Bangladesh’s National Security Intelligence (NSI) have caused such alarm in Cox’s Bazar. Multiple sources with direct knowledge have confirmed that the NSI has been holding meetings across the camp encouraging the Rohingya population to start organizing “Going Home” rallies. On June 8, a WhatsApp voice message circulated around the camp stating:
Today [redacted] had a meeting with all majhis. He asked them to do a mass demonstration, print banners that we want to return to Myanmar. He said we forgot that we came here so we need to wake up and act for our return.
The same sources say the NSI is going so far as to provide funds for rally paraphernalia, designs for materials, suggested messaging for the “campaign,” and reassurances to Rohingya that they can conduct such activities in safety. NSI was asked directly about the plans to support the demonstrations and denied any knowledge of these events, indicating explicitly that they would not support any such gathering. One possible reason for this denial is for the NSI to give the impression that the rallies are coming from the refugees themselves. Another may be the desire to obfuscate permissions in the event that the campaign is poorly received by wider audiences.
The broader question this situation raises, however, is why, after years of concerted efforts to oppress and terrorize the Rohingya living in the camps, are Bangladeshi officials suddenly pushing the population to organize “Going Home” demonstrations?
As Mohibullah showed, the Rohingya population living in Cox’s Bazar is more than capable and willing to organize its own Going Home campaign. The reason they do not is the environment of fear that the Bangladeshi authorities have created in the camp, whereby any agency on the part of the refugees will be met with severe consequences and those who do raise their voice will receive no protection. Furthermore, Bangladesh has allowed armed groups that oppose repatriation, such as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), to operate freely in the camps. ARSA threatens, kidnaps, and murders those they see as their enemies and has been accused, including by the Bangladeshi police, of orchestrating the murder of Mohibullah.
In light of his recent murder, and the current Going Home campaign, it is worth noting that Mohibullah, as a Rohingya leader and human rights activist, advocated for repatriation on the condition of citizenship and basic guarantees of rights for the Rohingya in Myanmar. His murder has left a gaping hole in community leadership and, at best, NSI’s strategy so soon after his murder is opportunistic and could also be indicative of a wider strategy to remove opposition to a speedy repatriation.
With the Rohingya crisis an important domestic issue and 2023 an election year in Bangladesh, the repatriation push may be an effort on the part of Bangladesh government to demonstrate to its domestic audience that the Rohingya still wish to return home, and that this return is still being blocked by conditions in Myanmar. However, this is a risky approach to take. As Mohibullah’s 2019 event demonstrated, despite camp-level approval, domestic audiences are easily alarmed by acts of agency by the refugee population, interpreting them as hostile acts. Going Home demonstrations may appease the population’s concerns, or as with the 2019 event, could agitate them even more. Dhaka is likely to gauge its response based on the refugee population’s reaction, and a negative reaction may prompt a severe response.
What a more severe response might look like is unclear. The Rohingya in the camps are already caged in by barbed wire fences, not permitted to move freely, denied access to education, live in a constant state of fear from armed groups and gangs, and are being forcibly transferred to the island of Bhasan Char. How much further could Bangladesh go? Furthermore, any rushed repatriation efforts in the camp risks stoking intra-Rohingya violence between groups such as ARSA that oppose repatriation and those that are seeking eventually to return.
While the Bangladeshi government has stood by the notion that any repatriations will be voluntary, sources indicate that the government is frustrated with the standards for repatriation expected by the Rohingya community, and is of the view that these standards are being promoted by western actors and U.N. agencies. As such, it appears that Bangladesh is instead looking to partners such as China and India to assist with repatriation efforts arranged with the SAC under less than voluntary circumstances. India has demonstrated as recently as this year that it is willing to refoul Rohingya refugees to Myanmar, while Bangladesh has been relocating refugees to Bhasan Char involuntarily. In addition to this, considering the situation in Rakhine State, not involving the AA in repatriation conversations appears nearsighted and unlikely to give way to voluntary repatriations, considering that the group controls the areas Rohingya are most likely to want to return to.
World Refugee Day is on June 20, and the NSI has instructed the Rohingya to commence their “campaign” activities by then. The situation that is unfolding is of grave concern. While it may be a case of simple posturing for domestic audiences, those that have watched the situation in Cox’s Bazar continue to deteriorate since 2019 are concerned that the government of Bangladesh, through the NSI, is encouraging the camp-based Rohingya to engage in “Going Home” demonstrations and activities, in order to spark a backlash against the Rohingya to justify the commencement of involuntary repatriations.
Make no mistake: the camp-based Rohingya see Myanmar as their home and express that view passionately and openly, when it is safe to do so. Had previous efforts to raise their voices not been so brutally shut down, and had leaders advocating for safe and voluntary repatriation, such as Mohibullah, been given the protection they needed, the population would not need to be prompted to demonstrate their desire to go home. Why this is happening now is unclear, but the circumstances that are unfolding are cause for serious concern for the safety of the Rohingya living in Cox’s Bazar.