Rohingya refugees test Bangladeshi welcome as prices rise and repatriation stalls

Rohingya refugees test Bangladeshi welcome as prices rise and repatriation stalls

Rohingya Muslims gather outside their makeshift homes on land belonging to Bangladeshi farmer Katun
Rohingya Muslims gather outside their makeshift homes on land belonging to Bangladeshi farmer Jorina Katun. (Photo: Reuters/Andrew RC Marshall

KUTUPALONG REFUGEE CAMP, Bangladesh: The first Rohingya refugees who arrived on Jorina Katun's farmland in Bangladesh last year were worn out and traumatised after fleeing violence in neighbouring Myanmar. 

They wept and begged to stay, and Katun, moved by their plight, said yes.

"I really regret that," she said. 

Bangladeshi farmer Katun stands among the Rohingya Muslims camped out on her land near Kutapalong r
Bangladeshi farmer Jorina Katun stands among the Rohingya Muslims camped out on her land near the Kutapalong refugee camp in the Cox's Bazar district of Bangladesh. (Photo: Reuters/Andrew RC Marshall)

"They said they would stay for only a month. They're still here and more are coming." Katun now has 25 Rohingya families living on a patch of land where she used to grow rice and vegetables.

Since August, nearly 700,000 Rohingya have crossed from Myanmar's Rakhine State into Bangladesh. 

Makeshift camps housing the Rohingya sprawl across thousands of acres of what was once a government forest reserve, butting up against - and sometimes overwhelming - Bangladeshi homes and land. 

Jorina Katun lives on the edge of the largest such camp.

Bangladeshi farmer Katun gestures among the Rohingya Muslims camped out on her land near Kutapalong
Bangladeshi farmer Jorina Katun gestures among the Rohingya Muslims camped out on her land near the Kutapalong refugee camp in the Cox's Bazar district of Bangladesh. (Photo: Reuters/Andrew RC Marshall)

Officials and aid workers fear that the welcome is wearing thin, due to the unprecedented number of refugees and growing doubts over whether Myanmar will ever take them back.

Repatriation was due to begin in January under an agreement signed by Myanmar and Bangladesh. But the plan has stalled due to safety and logistical concerns, and meanwhile Rohingya continue to flee across the border.

"We've accommodated them, but for how long?" said Kazi Abdur Rahman, a deputy district administrator in Cox's Bazar. 

"Our crop fields are destroyed. Our forests are destroyed ... It's a huge impact for the whole community."

Man walks between a rice field and the shacks of Rohingya refugees living on the land of Bangladesh
A man walks between a rice field and the shacks of Rohingya refugees living on the land of Bangladeshi farmer Jorina Katun near the Kutapalong refugee camp in the Cox's Bazar district of Bangladesh. (Photo: Reuters/Andrew RC Marshall)

So far, local people have been remarkably tolerant, with many feeling duty-bound to help fellow Muslims they see as being oppressed because of their religion. There have only been a handful of anti-Rohingya protest, all small and peaceful.

But many also blame the Rohingya for driving up food prices and stealing jobs, and officials worry that the refugees bring with them an increased risk of disease, militant activity and drug trafficking.

Residents have been told to report any Rohingya seen outside the camps, said Rahman. "It's for our security, so they can't get up to any terrorist activity," he said.

He said he had no evidence that the Rohingya were involved in crime, but noted they were poor, desperate and "very vulnerable to evil forces".

THE CHEAPEST WORKER

Before the current crisis, Bangladesh was already home to 300,000 Rohingya refugees who had fled previous bouts of violence in Myanmar. Now, in Ukhia and Teknaf, two sub-districts near the Myanmar border, Rohingya outnumber local people by about two to one.

Residents of Ukhia and Teknaf were already among Bangladesh's poorest and by some measures as deprived as the refugees, according to ACAPS, a Geneva-based think-tank which analyses humanitarian responses.

Seven in 10 families – both Bangladeshi and Rohingya – struggled to get enough to eat, ACAPS found.

Two men walk between a rice field and a trash-choked canal running alongside the Rohingya shacks se
Two men walk between a rice field and a trash-choked canal running alongside the Rohingya shacks set up on the land of Bangladeshi farmer Jorina Katun near the Kutapalong refugee camp in the Cox's Bazar district of Bangladesh. (Photo: Reuters/Andrew RC Marshall)

Little of the land around Cox's Bazar is suitable for farming, so Bangladeshis have to buy about 80 per cent of their food in local markets, said ACAPS.

The price of that food is rising, said Hamidul Hoque Chowdhury, a college principal who heads the Ukhia branch of the Awami League, the party of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Six months ago, 1 kg of potatoes cost 20 taka (US$0.24); it has since tripled in price to 60 or 70 taka. The price of fish has doubled, he said.

"The local people are now silent. They're not shouting now. But they're not happy," said Chowdhury. "Tensions will definitely rise."

Chowdhury, who helped organise a small anti-Rohingya protest in Ukhia in January, said Rohingya were competing with Bangladeshis for unskilled labour jobs, the main source of income for about half the local population.

Chowdhury, a school principal and local politician, speaks outside his office in Ukhia
Hamidul Hoque Chowdhury, a school principal and local politician, speaks outside his office in Ukhia, a sub-district of Bangladesh where thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees live. (Photo: Reuters/Andrew RC Marshall) 

Faruk Ahmed, 73, a local farmer, said he hired Rohingya labourers because they were cheap, plentiful and hard-working.

"Bangladeshis want 500 taka (US$6) a day, but Rohingya will take 300 taka," he said. "I'll hire the cheapest worker."

ROHINGYA ISLAND

Partly to ease the congestion at the camps, Bangladesh is accelerating a controversial plan to temporarily relocate 100,000 Rohingya on a remote island in the Bay of Bengal.

H.T. Imam, an advisor of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, said the refugees must be kept apart from Bangladeshis. "In the past the Rohingya spread out and caused serious law and order problems," he said.

Humanitarian groups said they were also looking for ways to support the Bangladeshi community.

Of the US$950 million budget currently being requested from donors for March to December, a quarter had been earmarked for projects that will directly benefit Bangladeshis, said UN host community liaison Maurice Dewulf.

There are "no major signals yet" of problems between Bangladeshis and locals in Cox's Bazar, Dewulf said, but such problems become more likely the longer a refugee crisis lasts.

The Rohingya families camped out on Jorina Katun's land are also doing what they can to keep the peace, paying Katun between 300 and 600 taka (US$3.50 to US$7) a month in rent, says refugee Bodi Alam.

The Bangladesh Army, which oversees security in the area, said it forbids local people to charge rent. "But we still pay," said Alam.

Without such payments, there would be quarrels with the Bangladeshis. "They will say 'go from here, this is our area, these are our houses, this is our land,'" he said.

Source: Reuters/ad

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