Five years after hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled a brutal crackdown by Myanmar’s military, refugees stuck at camps in southeastern Bangladesh say they feel increasingly unsafe as ARSA rebels and armed criminal gangs are targeting community leaders for attack.
Mohammed Jubair, who is among those leaders, says the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army has threatened him for his work as head of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPH). His group advocates for the repatriation of the refugees to their home villages and townships in Rakhine state, which lies across the border from Cox’s Bazar district.
“ARSA asked me to stop my work, otherwise they would kill me,” Jubair told BenarNews.
ARSA, formerly known as Al-Yaaqin, is the Rohingya insurgent group that launched coordinated deadly attacks on Burmese government military and police outposts in Rakhine that provoked the crackdown, which began on Aug. 25, 2017, and forced close to three-quarters of a million people to seek shelter in Bangladesh.
The United Nations and United States have since labeled the mass killings, burnings and rape allegedly committed by government forces and militiamen at Rohingya villages as a genocide.
Jubair took over as head of the ARSPH after the September 2021 assassination of Muhib Ullah, the society’s previous director, who had drawn international attention to the refugees’ plight and visited the White House in Washington.
For years since the 2017 exodus into Cox’s Bazar, Bangladeshi government officials denied that ARSA had a foothold or presence in the sprawling camps, which house about 1 million refugees near the frontier with Myanmar. But that changed with Muhib Ullah’s killing by a group of gunmen and other attacks that followed.
In a report issued in June, Bangladesh police alleged that ARSA leader Ataullah Abu Ahmmar Jununi had ordered Ullah assassinated because he was more popular.
Jubair blamed ARSA for killing Rohingya leaders who call for refugees to repatriate to Rakhine state. He said that while ARSA claimed that its members were working to “defend and protect” Rohingya against state repression in Myanmar, they wouldn’t flinch in attacking refugees.
“ARSA never tolerates any Rohingya who are not part of their group,” he said. “They want to ensure their domination everywhere.”
Since the government confirmed ARSA’s existence in the camps following Ullah’s killing, thousands of Rohingya leaders and volunteers have joined police on nightly patrols.
Still, violence goes on. Six Rohingya were killed at their madrassa at the Balukhali camp less than a month after Muhib Ullah’s murder and volunteers with safety patrols say ARSA targets them for sharing information about crime in the camps.
Security volunteer Mohammad Harun said ARSA wanted to make the madrassa a base camp, but madrassa chief Maulana Akiz did not agree and, as a result, was among the six killed.
“No one is safe from ARSA. In the camps where ARSA members stay, people are afraid to go out even during the day,” Harun told BenarNews.
Since the unprecedented exodus into southeastern Bangladesh, not a single Rohingya refugee has been repatriated, and the prospect of Rohingya going home to Rakhine is further complicated by post-coup violence in what is now junta-ruled Myanmar.
Now, five years on, Rohingya say they feel trapped because they have little freedom of movement in the camps and are largely barred from leaving their camps’ confines. About 27,400 others were transferred to Bhashan Char, an island in the Bay of Bengal where the Bangladesh government built housing for about 100,000 of the refugees. Those on the island have complained about being unable to leave to visit family members in the mainland camps.
Noting the five-year anniversary, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar called on the “international community to redouble its efforts to hold perpetrators accountable and deliver justice to the Rohingya inside and outside Myanmar.
“It is long past time for the entirety of the international community to call these attacks what they are – genocide. The Myanmar military has yet to be held to account for this ultimate crime,” Tom Andrews said in a news release issued on Wednesday, the eve of the anniversary.
“It is critical that, once and for all, the international community hold the Myanmar military accountable for its atrocities,” Andrews said.
Rohingya killed in camps
Police have said at least 121 Rohingya have been killed in the last five years at different camps in and around Cox’s Bazar, while 414 ARSA members have been arrested since Ullah’s killing.
Mohammad Kamran Hossain, additional superintendent of the 8th Armed Police Battalion, did not release details about ARSA’s presence in the camps.
“We are conducting drives to prevent crimes inside the Rohingya camps and root out the criminal groups including so-called ARSA,” he told BenarNews.
Hossain said about 11,000 Rohingya volunteers join police in patrolling the camps each night, adding that many of the volunteers are being victimized because of their efforts to alert police to ARSA activities.
Still, the patrols are having a positive effect in the camps.
“The activities of the criminals are being hindered due to the active role of the Majhi [Rohingya leader] and volunteers in the camp. That is why rebel groups are angry and attack them,” Hossain said, adding no one involved in crimes against Rohingya would be exempt from prosecution.
BenarNews was unable to contact ARSA leaders for a comment in response to the allegations.
‘In fear’ at every moment
Human rights activists described the Rohingya leaders as educated people working for repatriation and against illegal drug dealings and other criminal activities.
“Many educated Rohingya leaders were already being killed by terrorists. Especially after the killing of Muhib Ullah, many English-speaking Rohingya leaders have become silent while few are active because of risks to their lives,” Khin Mong, founder of the Rohingya Youth Association and a resident of the Unchiprang camp in Cox’s Bazar, told BenarNews.
Khin said he uses a pseudonym because of security concerns. While Ullah’s killing shocked the world, ARSA had already killed other pro-repatriation leaders because the rebels sought to establish their leadership in the camps, Khin said.
“All of us who are working in favor of repatriation and against various crimes in the camps, including drug and human trafficking, are in fear of losing our lives every moment,” Khin said.
Khin said pro-repatriation Rohingya leaders who were killed included Maulana Abdullah of the Jamtoli camp and Arif Ullah of the Balukhali camp in 2018; Mulovi Hasim in the Kutupalong camp and Abdul Matlab in the Leda camp in 2019; and Shawkat Ali in Kutupalong’s Lambasia camp in May 2021.
He said the victims’ families blamed ARSA for the killings.
Meanwhile, the executive director of Ain-O-Salish Kendra, the nation’s leading human rights organization, questioned law enforcers’ efforts to protect Rohingya.
“The level of risk for potential Rohingya leaders is increasing because the position of criminals is constantly strong in the camp area,” Nur Khan Liton told BenarNews.
He noted that the closure of the ARSPH office and restrictions on the organization’s leaders after Ullah’s killing had added to the dangers faced by Rohingya.
ARSPH leader Jubair wrote to the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) last month, informing it about the risks that he and his family face, according to a copy of the letter obtained by BenarNews.
Along with Jubair, 17 Christian Rohingya families who have been in transit camps since January 2020 because of a reported ARSA attack sent a letter to UNHCR requesting protection.
“Authorities later rebuilt our houses, but we are still living here in a transit camp due to fear of ARSA,” Saiful Islam Peter, one of 76 Christian Rohingya, told BenarNews.
Regina de la Portilla, a spokeswoman for UNHCR in Cox’s Bazar, told BenarNews that it was providing support to Rohingya Christians, just as it supports all of the refugees in the camps.
“The Government of Bangladesh is responsible for ensuring safety and security for the Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshis living nearby, and so it is per their guidelines that refugees may move between and outside the camps,” she said.
Observers noted that teachers, including Jubair, are facing their own threats from ARSA.
Rahmat Ullah, a teacher not related to Muhib Ullah who lives with his family at the Balukhali camp, was forced to leave Rakhine state because of his profession. Security volunteer Mohammad Harun said Rahmat Ullah was facing death and kidnapping threats here as well.
Asif Munir, an immigration and refugee affairs analyst, said the government must take some responsibility for the killings of Rohingya and other criminal activity in the camps.
“The authorities should be careful in this regard as the volunteers and organizers are now known enemies to rebel groups,” Munir told BenarNews.
Munir, who used to work as an official with the International Organization for Migration, said he was aware that many Rohingya youths hide from their camp homes at night because armed groups including ARSA can pressure or threaten them to join.
A criminology and police science professor, meanwhile, expressed concern about a lack of coordination among security enforcers at the camps.
“The traditional policing will not work at Rohingya camps. The police should discuss with the people who are at risk or vulnerable,” Md. Omar Faruk told BenarNews.
“There is a kind of conflict between the privileged and disadvantaged Rohingya in the camps. Many Rohingya feel they are better off here than in Rakhine, while educated Rohingya with better status think they will be better off if they go back,” said Faruk of the Mawlana Bhashani Science and Technology University.
BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated news service.