Gang violence stalks the world’s largest refugee camp
The resounding echoes of gunfire reverberate through the nights in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, where Modina Khatun resides – in the world’s largest refugee camp.
The ominous fear looms over her that the escalating gang violence could subject another Rohingya woman like herself to widowhood, burdened with the responsibility of caring for young children.
Last June, tragedy struck as Ms. Khatun’s husband, Bashir Ullah, tragically became a part of the grim statistics. He lost his life after being caught in the crossfire between two rival gangs within the confines of Cox’s Bazar, located in the southeastern region of Bangladesh.
That fateful night, he had volunteered to patrol the vast camp that the Rohingya community has called home for the past six years.
The sprawling expanse of Cox’s Bazar, once a place of refuge, has now been plagued by the menacing presence of drug smuggling and human trafficking syndicates.
The livelihoods of nearly one million ethnic minority Rohingyas, who fled Myanmar in 2017 to escape a military crackdown, have been turned into a nightmarish ordeal.
As of mid-July, the alarming tally of gang-related fatalities stands at 48, surpassing the total of 40 deaths recorded for the entirety of 2022.
The intensifying violence further compounds the already dire situation faced by the Rohingyas. The prospect of their return to Myanmar remains uncertain, and Bangladesh, their host, struggles with the perceived burden they represent.
The squalid living conditions within Cox’s Bazar have also rendered them susceptible to calamities like devastating fires and typhoons.
Amidst this backdrop of frustration and helplessness, different armed groups such as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO), and the Munna Gang exploit these sentiments. “We fled from the Myanmar military to save our lives.
I could hardly imagine that my husband would meet his end in our camp, at the hands of another Rohingya,” laments 31-year-old Ms. Khatun, sharing her heartbreaking story with the BBC.
“I cannot sleep at night. We want to leave the camp. I don’t know what the future holds for me and my sons,” she added.
Mohammed Mizanur Rahman, a senior official in charge of Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission said drug peddlers were using Rohingya as carriers to smuggle drugs from Myanmar into Bangladesh.
“There are a million people without any opportunities. That creates space for criminals. They are violent and need to be held to account,” Meenakshi Ganguly, deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch told the BBC.
Mohib Ullah, a prominent Rohingya rights leader is among the victims of the spiraling violence. He was shot dead while speaking to a refugee gathering in September 2021. The groups are also accused of abducting people for ransom, as well as forced marriage and child recruitment.
One of their former captives, who asked to be identified only as Nur, told the BBC that he had been tortured while being held in a forest area near the border town of Teknaf for four days.
“I was made to stand in a stream day and night and was constantly beaten with wires and sticks. I thought I wouldn’t make it,” said the 21-year-old who now lives in a southeast Asian capital.
Nur said the ARSA militants demanded a ransom of $18,000 (£14,126) for his release, but his parents raised only about $2300. He managed to escape after the group asked for the remainder of the ransom. A spokesman for ARSA did not respond to a request for comment.
Bangladeshi authorities say their worries of deteriorating security in the Rohingya areas are becoming a reality.
The UN and aid agencies find themselves stretched for resources to provide for the Rohingyas as international attention shifts to the war in Ukraine. Monthly food vouchers have been cut to $8 from $12 per person.
Bangladesh says it has deployed more than 2,000 personnel from the Armed Police Battalion to secure refugee camps. But the only solution to stop the violence, authorities say, is to repatriate the Rohingyas back to Myanmar.
Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed on a possible repatriation of refugees in 2017 but there has been little progress.
In recent months, Myanmar has shown some interest in taking back some refugees, if not all, following a China-backed initiative. More than 1,000 Rohingya have been shortlisted to be sent back in a pilot project.
But the Rohingyas are not happy with this.
“Unless our safety and security are guaranteed, unless we are allowed to go back to our villages, we are not keen on repatriation,” says a Rohingya activist who did not want to be identified.
With their fate uncertain, dozens of Rohingya are taking perilous high-seas journeys via seas aboard rickety boats to escape to Indonesia and Malaysia, often paying huge sums to human traffickers. Dozens drown every year attempting the sea crossing.
Six years after reaping worldwide praise for accepting Rohingya refugees, Bangladesh now faces a huge dilemma.
With foreign aid dwindling, Dhaka says it’s spending more of its own resources to manage the camps. At the same time, the worsening security situation is triggering alarm.
And widows of the violence, like Ms. Khatun, continue to live a nightmare.