“If there is a cyclone in October or November then it would result in 30,000-40,000 deaths and a break out of the survivors from the confines of Cox’s Bazaar’s Kutopalong refugee camp” feared an official of an international humanitarian organisation working in Bangladesh. In this refugee camp, located in the Southwestern part of Bangladesh, there are almost a million Rohingyas clinging onto their lives under fragile thatched huts and plastic sheets on an undulating and unstable muddy terrain for the past one year. Displaying genocidal intent, Myanmar army killed and maimed hundreds of Rohingyas from the Rakhine state. What started as an exodus of about 200,000 turned into 900,000 within a year- starting from August 25, 2017.
Till now the Rohingyas have been lucky as the pre-monsoon cyclones, which normally lash this part of the disaster-prone country, did not rage. The relief of the refugees and the humanitarian agencies is chastened by the knowledge that the most murderous and devastating cyclones normally come post-monsoon in the months between September-November.
Living in cramped spaces with nowhere to go, a cyclone would be catastrophic. The fear is that strong winds that go up to 200 kilometres/hour along with high tidal waves, which normally destroy sturdier structures, will blow away the thatched huts built on slippery loamy soil. “There is nothing really that can be done to save them if the cyclone hits these parts”, helplessly explained disaster experts.
What about the planned shift of these refugees to the Bay of Bengal Island, Bhashan Char? According to information coming from Dhaka, the island is water logged after recent rains and would experience severe devastation if cyclonic winds came swirling in. It is learnt that Chinese, Bangladesh and British construction companies have readied the infrastructure in the island to receive the refugees, but the authorities are most reluctant to allow the humanitarian agencies from inspecting it. Earlier, Bangladesh government had planned to send about 100,000 refugees to this island where they would have been housed in 1440 barrack houses and 120 central shelters. The problem with Bhashan Char is that it gets inundated during floods and it needs dykes and cyclone shelters if it has to be an abode for these refugees. The government of Sheikh Hasina was very keen to send the Rohingyas away to the island before the parliament elections to mollify the nationalist constituency in the country that wants the refugees to return to Myanmar and to stay away from local people. Ordinary Bangladeshis conveyed to this writer that they were not fond of the refugees as they believed that they were a drain on the resources of a poor country. This is despite the fact that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been trying hard to show that Bangladesh is no longer a least developed country and has a big heart to look after the refugees.
What has perhaps serious security implications is if the refugees, in the wake of the natural calamity, try to get away from the camp- either through the sea route or take the roads that take them to India and beyond. What about the army that prevents from immersing them with the local population? “Bangladesh army and authorities would be happy if the refugees go anywhere in the world. That’s the ultimate objective,” explains an official.
What could be a cause for worry for those mandated to look after national security is that many of these refugees will head towards India, Indonesia, Middle East and even Europe. Though the radicalisation in the camp is invisible, there have been attempts by some charitable organisations- camouflaging their radical Islamist past- to convert these refugees to their cause. However, there is no understanding of how the survivors will react when they find living impossible in these camps. Recently, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) had tried to look for fresh recruits from refugee camps, but they were chased out and told that that they had created enough problems and that they should not dare to come close to them. The precipitating factor for the refugee exodus that took place a year ago was linked to ARSA’s attack on the Burmese military.
Indians have displayed little initiative in sorting out the Rohingya issue. They have provided humanitarian aid to the refugees in Cox’s Bazaar, but they are seen to be on the right side of the government and the army in Yangon, which perceives Rohingyas as a problem. This is a tricky space to be in-if Delhi is not putting its good offices to work in finding a workable solution for the return to their homes, then the next tragedy will bring them back in bigger numbers through different routes.
In the north Indian city of Jammu, large hoardings have sprung up demanding the ouster of Rohingyas – the persecuted Muslim minority from Myanmar, some of whom have been forced to live here as refugees – as they supposedly constitute a threat to the local culture. The timing of these hoardings is unusual. Living quietly and unobtrusively for the past six years, these Rohingya refugees, scattered in different parts of the country, never attracted much attention. Over the past few months there has been a change in the way they are being perceived. Suspicion has replaced sympathy in Delhi’s foreign policy circles ever since Pakistan and other Muslim nations began to plead the Rohingyas’ case and reports began to appear about their flirtation with radical Islam.
India, instead, is working towards finding ways to get them ousted from the camps that are dispersed in different parts of the country. After the rise of ARSA in Rakhine state, the intel agencies have been claiming the Rohingyas as a terror threat, though there have been no incidents reported, except some minor felonies. Some humanitarian agencies have taken the issue of Rohingya refugees to the Supreme Court seeking more hygienic conditions. The Indian government asked the Court to stay out of this issue as it concerns national security. It was the government’s view that the issue of terror was closely linked with infiltration and it was the sovereign right of every country to protect its borders. Also, India was not a signatory of the UN Convention on Refugees and hence it was not obligated to accept them. This is a harsh response to lawyers of Rohingyas that wanted them to be treated like refugees from other countries that are living in India.
Coming days and weeks will show how this looming crisis plays out.