As monsoon approaches, fears grow for Rohingya in camps

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During monsoon rain in September 2017, a Rohingya walks through a refugee camp in Bangladesh. Photo: AFP/Dominique Faget

With nearly one million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar now in camps in Bangladesh, and none so far being repatriated, the question about their future is becoming an urgent issue, especially since the monsoon season, which often brings cyclones to Bangladesh, is about the start.

At the same time, local people in the Cox’s Bazar area, where the camps are located, are getting increasingly restive, and even annoyed, with the presence of so many outsiders in their area.

Land is scarce in Bangladesh and forests have been cleared to make way for the camps, whose inhabitants also cut trees and collect firewood. Elections are scheduled for later this year in Bangladesh and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed’s Awami League government can ill afford to antagonize the local population in any part of the country.

Sooner rather than later, the Rohingyas would have to move – but the question is to where? Despite pressure from the UN and other international agencies, Myanmar does not appear willing to let the refugees come back.

So 100,000 refugees are supposed to be relocated to an island called Bhasanchar, about 30 kilometers from the mainland. That is still a drop in the ocean, and the plan appears to be little more than an attempt by Sheikh Hasina to show she is doing “something” to solve the problem.

Some Rohingyas from the camps have already left by boat to Malaysia and Indonesia, but one million people can hardly do that. And if they are not welcome in Bangladesh, the only other alternative is India.

According to the First Post on May 2, about 40,000 Rohingyas have made it to India since they fled renewed violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, where they come from. They are living in makeshift settlements in Hyderabad in the south, Jammu in the north and near the capital New Delhi.

A trickle of Rohingyas have also found their way to Assam in the northeast, where they can easily mix with Bengali-speaking Bangladeshi settlers. There are at least 20 million Bangladeshi migrants in India, most living there illegally, and the situation is especially grave in Assam. And it is in India’s volatile northeast that ethnic, anti-settler violence may take place, as it did in the 1980s.

Over the past few decades, millions of Bangladeshi migrants have arrived in Assam – which led to that massive movement to evict the “illegals” in the 1980s, vicious massacres against them and the birth of an Assamese separatist movement that still lingers to the present day.

In what could be seen as a preemptive move, the Assamese authorities have embarked on a vast exercise to identify every resident who would be able to prove that they have lived in the state since before March 1971 – the beginning of the war in East Pakistan than led to the formation of Bangladesh – and deport all those who can’t.

Ethnic and political insurgencies have long plagued other northeastern Indian states as well, notably Manipur and Nagaland, where there’s also been an influx of migrants from Bangladesh.

It is becoming obvious that the Rohingya refugee crisis is no longer a bilateral issue between Myanmar and Bangladesh, but a problem that is bound to have more far-reaching, regional consequences.

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