Bangladesh to start census of unregistered Rohingyas

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Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) will conduct the census in six districts – Khagrhachharhi, Bandarban, Rangamati, Chittagong, Cox’s Bazar, and Patuakhali.

“We’ll have to finish the work by March next year,” Project Director Alamgir Hossain told reporters in Dhaka.

The government claims thousands of unregistered Rohingyas are staying in Bangladesh apart from 30,000 registered Rohingyas, who are lodged at two refugee camps.

Thousands of people from Rohingya Muslim ethnic community fled to Bangladesh from Buddhist-dominated Myanmar over the years, mostly to avoid persecution. Myanmar refuses to acknowledge them as its citizens and dubs them ‘Bengalis’ – a term Naypyidaw uses to describe both the Rohingyas and Bangladeshis.

Rohingya setelment in Shah Porir Dwip

Rohingya setelment in Shah Porir Dwip

BBS Project Director Hossain said they had finished the initial work in the last five months and the Planning Commission cleared Tk 217.5 million fund for the project.

The database will have pictures of unregistered Rhohingyas and general information. But many Rohingyas living in coastal areas refuse to be documented, fearing Dhaka will deport them.

The Cabinet on Sept 9, 2013 approved a national strategy to document unregistered Rohingyas. On June 26, the government approved fund for the project. The Rohingyas have been a contentious bilateral issue between Dhaka and Nypyidaw for a long time.

A senior official in Bangladesh foreign office said an estimated 50,000 Rohingyas were staying abroad with Bangladeshi passports.

Media reports said Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba and two of its front groups were active on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border and trying to radicalise the Rohingyas. The foreign ministry says it will decide about the Rohingyas after documenting them. Election Commission officials say information from this project can be utilised to thwart Rohingyas’ attempts to be included in the voter list.

In 2013, the EC scrapped nearly 17,000 applications for inclusion in the voter list from the ‘Rohingya-dominated’ areas in Cox’s Bazar, Bandarban and Rangamati. In 2010, the number was 50,000.

For hundreds of thousands of unregistered Rohingya asylum seekers, life in Bangladesh has become increasing precarious. While Rohingyas face appalling conditions in Myanmar, across the border the Bangladesh government’s growing sensitivity to the refugee issue is putting an already vulnerable population of unregistered Rohingyas further at risk.

A Rohingya man carries his grandson in a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. PHOTO_AM Ahad

A Rohingya man carries his grandson in a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.       PHOTO AM Ahad

Tensions between Myanmar and Bangladesh have been high following a recent series of cross-border incidents, and the Rohingyas have become the most oft-used scapegoat in the political standoff between the two countries. Accusations have bee

n thrown about by Myanmar – and then repeated by Bangladesh officials and local media – that Rohingyas are involved in terrorist activities and drug trafficking.

About 30,000 Rohingyas are officially recognized as refugees – and therefore eligible to receive government and international support – while an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 are left to feed for themselves.

CR Abrar, a professor of International Relations and the head of the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit at the University of Dhaka, said that in labeling the Rohingya a national “security threat” the Bangladesh government had found a convenient excuse to “abandon its humanitarian obligations” and “justify not extending any support” to unregistered Rohingyas who have sought refuge there.

Rohingya a national “security threat” the Bangladesh government had found a convenient excuse to “abandon its humanitarian obligations” and “justify not extending any support” to unregistered Rohingyas who have sought refuge there

“Often the excuse is made by the Bangladesh government that we don’t have much of an obligation toward this community of people because we have not ratified the [UN’s] 1951 refugee convention,” said Abrar. “I believe that’s a very flawed way of looking at things.”

“[Bangladesh] should not feel that it has got the right to treat these people as it wishes,” said Abrar. “You cannot just dispose of a people by political decree.”

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said it is “totally inexcusable that Bangladesh is denying the Rohingya the right to seek political asylum and refugee status” and that withholding humanitarian assistance from this group marks “an all-new low in the Bangladesh government’s already shoddy human rights record”. “We have received no credible information that indicates there are active Rohingya armed groups aiming to terrorize Rakhine state or the wider Burma,” he added, using the name for Myanmar that is preferred by advocacy groups.

The allegations of terrorist activities are pinned to rumors that the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), a militant group established in the early 1980s, has again started operating along the porous Bangladesh-Myanmar border, said Hanna Hindstrom, Asia Information Officer at Minority Rights Group. “However, most experts believe the RSO to be long defunct.”

In May, Myanmar authorities claimed to have shot and killed a member of the RSO, but later it came to light that the man was in fact a Bangladeshi border guard. Abrar also said the terrorism allegations were “not backed up with any evidence”, but conceded that due to their marginalized state, some Rohingyas could have been coerced into trafficking drugs simply to earn money to support their families.

 

A step in the right direction

That’s not to say there haven’t been any positive developments. Bangladesh is now gearing up to undertake what it refers to as a “listing” process, whereby it plans to carry out a census of unregistered Rohingyas within its borders.

Rights advocates say the census could be a positive step if carried out with the appropriate aims. But as of yet, the government has not revealed exactly what it intends to use the gathered information for or what – if any – status would be granted to Rohingyas who come forward to be listed.

“Currently, the unregistered Rohingya population does not have any legal status and thus have no access to basic services or the Bangladeshi justice system. As a result, they remain vulnerable to exploitation and can easily be taken advantage of by criminal entities,” said, Chief of the UN refugee agency Stina Ljungdell.

The census could potentially lay the groundwork for voluntary repatriation of Rohingyas if the situation in Myanmar improves, she said.

“UNHCR remains hopeful that the ‘listing’ exercise will lead to some kind of documentation and temporary legal status to ensure that the population has access to humanitarian assistance and justice,” Ljungdell added.

From the moment they leave their homes in Rakhine state, their lives are fraught with vulnerability and exploitation. Rohingyas are routinely taken advantage of by employers in the fishing industry and construction sector, denied wages, or subjected to trafficking. But given their tenuous status in Bangladesh, most remain afraid to speak up.

the census could potentially lay the groundwork for voluntary repatriation of Rohingyas if the situation in Myanmar improves

In the Kutupalong informal settlement, residents said that restrictions on their movement, laws prohibiting their employment, and the constant threat of arrest made it nearly impossible to earn a living.

“The most serious problem for Rohingya people is that we don’t have freedom of movement and most of us are unemployed,” said Abdul Hafeez, a 38-year-old camp leader in Kutupalong. “Some Rohingya pull rickshaws, go fishing in the river and work on construction sites as day laborers. But they have to do it in fear because they could be arrested and sent to jail if they are caught by the police.”

KUTUPALONG REFUGEE CAMP, BANGLADESH - NOVEMBER 20:     A view over where unregistered Rohingya refugees live on November 20, 2009 at Kutupalong Refugee Camp, Bangladesh.  Thousands of unregistered refugees live next to the registered refugee camp, but are unable to receive benefits of registered status like education, healthcare and housing.  (Jonathan Saruk/Getty Images)

Kutupalong Refugee Camp

Abdul Motaleb, a 64-year-old unregistered Rohingya in the Leda informal camp, echoed these thoughts: “In Bangladesh, we live in fear. If we go outside the camps, we might be arrested and jailed.”

A couple of days before he spoke with ucanews.com, Motaleb said that about 40 Rohingya men had gone to nearby Teknaf to work as day laborers, but had been arrested by police.

One hurdle that will need to be overcome is that many Rohingya fear the listing process could lead to forced repatriation – though rights monitors say this is unlikely.

“I have heard about the Bangladesh government’s listing plan. I have fears about it because I suspect they might try to send us back to Burma after the census is complete,” said Rojiya Begum, 33, who has been living in Bangladesh for about two years at the Shamlapur informal settlement.

“If the government wants to push us back to Burma soon, I will hide myself and my family to escape forced repatriation,” said Jahir Ahmed, 25, who also lives in Shamlapur. “But I don’t think they will do it. After all, we are Muslims and Bangladesh is a Muslim country. They can’t be that cruel.”

And, over the years, many have left on boats bound mostly for Thailand or Malaysia. According to UNHCR, tens of thousands have attempted the journey since 2012. More than 1,300 have died.

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