Rohingya threaten backlash in Bangladesh

Rohingya threaten backlash in Bangladesh


Rohingya refugee Noor Kamal found a sympathetic welcome in Bangladesh as he fled soldiers rampaging through his village – but five years later, the hostility he now faces has him contemplating a dangerous return home.

Much has changed since he and 750,000 other members of the stateless Muslim minority fled neighboring Myanmar.

At the time, thousands of Bangladeshis, outraged by the anti-Muslim violence across the border, marched from across the country to distribute food and medicine to the shocked arrivals.

But public attitudes have hardened after years of futile efforts to negotiate a safe return for the Rohingya, with media and politicians routinely condemning refugees as drug smugglers and terrorist threats.

“There is so much hatred among local people and the press here that I fear violence could break out at any time,” Kamal told AFP from his home in the sprawling aid camps bordering Bangladesh.

“It’s better we return home, even if it means facing bullets. If we die, at least we’ll be buried in our homeland.”

Bangladesh is struggling to support the immense refugee population – while there is financial support from the UN refugee agency and other humanitarian organizations, Dhaka still faces major administrative challenges in housing the camps.

Last year’s military coup in Myanmar has pushed the prospects of a full return even further.

Last month Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said the Rohingya camps had become both a major drain on her country’s economy and a threat to its political stability.

“If the problem persists… it may affect the security and stability of the entire region,” she told the UN General Assembly in New York.

– “Shame Bangladesh” –

Resentment is widespread among Bangladeshis living near the camps, who say the Rohingya have overstayed their intake.

“They bring shame to Bangladesh,” Ayasur Rahman, spokesman for a local civil society group fighting the Rohingya presence, told AFP.

“They should be sent to Myanmar immediately,” he said, accusing the refugees of “taking our jobs (and) stealing our passports.”

Critical comments on security issues in the camps and their drain on public resources have also become a regular part of local media coverage.

In August, on the fifth anniversary of the crackdown that sparked the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar, a popular online news outlet published an opinion piece asking, “How long will Bangladesh be punished for its goodwill?”

Another local media headline compared the Rohingya presence to a “cancer tumor”.

Negative media portrayals of the Rohingya are so widespread that they caught the attention of former UN chief justice Michelle Bachelet, who was touring the country in August as one of her final acts.

“I am deeply concerned about the increasing anti-Rohingya rhetoric in Bangladesh, the stereotyping and scapegoating of the Rohingya as a source of crime and other problems,” she said at the time.

– “It’s very hurtful” –

Refugees acknowledge that there is violence and criminal activity within the Kutupalong camp network – although the Rohingya themselves are the main victims.

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), an Islamist militant group that has clashed with Myanmar’s army in the past, has sought to tighten its control over the camps — even assassinating civil society leaders who might question its authority .

Southern Bangladesh is also a hotspot for the regional methamphetamine trade originating in Myanmar, and Rohingya are often recruited as drug couriers for the influential local kingpins who control the distribution networks.

The trade dates back to the Rohingya influx of 2017, but refugees say they have been largely blamed for spreading drugs in Bangladesh and have been convicted as criminals regardless of their involvement.

“There are a handful of bad apples in a million people, but that doesn’t justify labeling the entire refugee community as criminal,” Rohingya refugee Abdul Mannan told AFP.

“It’s very hurtful how we’re portrayed.”

This year, a faltering economy has burdened Bangladeshis with soaring food prices and protracted nationwide power outages that have sparked occasional violent protests.

Bangladesh also suffered the worst flooding in living memory during the last monsoon, submerging millions of homes and cutting off scores of villages from the rest of the country.

The resulting hardships have helped undermine the charitable sentiment that once caused Bangladeshis to flock to the camps and offer aid to refugees.

“The compassion shown in 2017 and the years that followed has waned. It has been replaced with xenophobic rhetoric,” said Ali Riaz, a political science professor at Illinois State University who has written extensively on the Rohingya crisis.

“Fear and hatred are the main characteristics,” he told the AFP news agency. “Unfortunately, these are not scarce.”

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