The Grim Reality of Cox’s Bazaar


Although Bangladesh has been good to Rohingya refugees, the monsoons will complicate matters.

The fact that the conviviality was contrived escaped none. Though Indian PM Narendra Modi and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee were effusive in their praise of the visiting Bangladesh Chief Minister Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, it was apparent that more compelling issues were casting their long shadow over the recent inauguration of the Bangladesh Bhaban at Vishwa Bharati University, Santiniketan, West Bengal.

Besides the contentious Teesta river water treaty that West Bengal government has been refusing to sign for years now- much to the annoyance of Sheikh Hasina- there is another troubling issue that has no easy solution. Since last year, the Bangladesh government has given refuge to a million Rohingya refugees from neighboring Myanmar who escaped what seemed like a planned genocide. The Rohingyas dubbed the world’s most persecuted community, have been routinely coming to Cox’s bazaar for hundreds of years. There are some who have been refugees thrice in their lifetime, but are forced to return here when Myanmarese army goes berserk..

These refugees have been settled in the undulating muddy slopes at the periphery of Cox’s Bazar district, and exposed to the vagaries of nature. Though it has been raining in these parts for some time, real monsoon and real misery are still some weeks away. The government of Dhaka wants these refugees to return to their villages and towns in Myanmar, but no one really wants to go back home till they are guaranteed safety. In November, the two governments signed an agreement to create circumstances for their return, but till last heard, only one family had returned home. The Bangladesh government has sought India’s intervention to find a solution to the Rohingya issue, but New Delhi approaches this issue from the security standpoint. It has taken refuge behind dodgy intelligence reports that these refugees have been indoctrinated by Islamic State or Lashkar, and could hurt Indian interests. This is despite the fact that Rohingya refugees located in Bangladesh or India have provided no evidence of their terror links.

Sheikh Hasina has earned encomiums globally for not just allowing refugees to stay in her poor country, but also expressed resolve to provide them food and shelter on their own, when far richer and resourceful countries were turning them away. India was no exception. She now realizes that their continued presence in her country could hurt her electorally. It is possible to hear voices in the street of Dhaka resenting Rohingyas in Bangladesh. The narrative being little different from what is heard against the Bangladeshis in India. “ They have so many children,” is a common refrain that one hears in Dhaka. Even PM Hasina mentioned the number of children that are born everyday in the refugee camp of Kutupolang in Cox’s Bazaar.

Now Sheikh Hasina has come out with a plan to shift them to a floating island called Thengar Char in Bay of Bengal, which has not found favour with either the refugees or the humanitarian agencies. This island is seeing some furious construction by Bangladeshi and Chinese workers. This will be a temporary abode, Bangladeshi authorities claim.

The process to shift these refugees is expected to begin from June this year, but the humanitarian agencies are claiming that it will be similar to refoulement- a forcible push back– as the Rohingyas will be sent against their wishes and will be in a worse state than they were in Myanmar.

As a relief specialist said, the island will be like Alcatraz or “kala pani”— the open penitentiary in Andaman Island where all the Indian freedom fighters were kept by the British rulers. The Bangladeshi authorities have made it clear that the refugees would not be allowed to enter Bangladesh or escape to freedom to India or elsewhere from this island. The same regimen is followed in Cox’s Bazar, too. Rohingyas are not allowed to leave the refugee camps managed by the army.

The Thengar Char Island has been an abode of smugglers, drug smugglers and other malcontent. Humanitarian agencies fear that by relocating the refugees in such a place, they would be at the mercy of these criminal elements.

The government in Dhaka has managed to push this proposal through by claiming that the refugee recipient country has the freedom to set up camps anywhere in the country. Bangladesh PM said the process of shifting them would begin soon. She is however packaging this shift as a humanitarian exercise, but realizes the political import of her move.

Sheikh Hasina and her advisors believe that her two pronged approach of shifting some of these refugees to the island and beefing Bangladesh economy can pay electoral dividends at a time when anti-incumbency raging. Therefore, she is keen to leveraging not its universally praised magnanimity to provide haven to Rohingya refugees, but the country’s economic performance to win a re-election.

Earlier this year, the government choreographed a joyous celebration of Bangladesh’s transition from a less developed country to a developing one. There were processions and parties to celebrate a Bangladesh that has come of age. Though there was plenty of criticism in the media about this public display of exultation over the improvement in the country’s status when lives of people hadn’t changed much, the yardstick for the elevation was the improvement in per capita income.

Economist Kaushik Basu provided context to Bangladesh’s high growth rate, pointing out that it has been faster than Pakistan’s for the past 12 years. On human development index, too, Bangladesh’s performance can embarrass India by some distance.

Bangladesh’s recent achievements have been considerable, but it remains a desperately poor country that has been forced by circumstances to shoulder the burden to feed a million refugees, who show no desire to return to their homeland. UNHCR considers the Rohingya refugee crisis grimmer than the Syrian one.

Under these difficult circumstances, the Bangladesh government and humanitarian agencies are doing a great job of looking after the Rohingyas, but a visit to the camp in Cox’s bazaar shows that the next big tragedy is a cyclone away.

About the author

Sanjay Kapoor

Sanjay Kapoor is the Editor of the Delhi-based Hardnews Magazine, which is the South Asian partner of French Publication, Le Monde Diplomatique.
Sanjay follows South and West Asia closely. He has authored a book on corruption and is a regular commentator on Indian and foreign TV channels.