It had been raining for the last few days and, despite the muddy streets inside, the Kutopalong camp – where 550,000 of the more than 1 million Rohingyas now living in Bangladesh reside – is bustling with activity. The houses inside the camps, though mostly made of plastic sheet and bamboo, are far sturdier than the ones originally built when the latest influx of Rohingyas began in late August 2017. Almost every block is now dotted with schools, NGO offices and mosques and there are banners and posters hanging from various places declaring the candidates for an election to select camp leaders.
The place, and the people living in it, appear settled. There is a sense of permanence all around. And it is this sense of permanence that has the government of Bangladesh, as well as local Bangladeshis living around the camps, uncomfortable and worried.
On August 25 last month, on the occasion of the second anniversary of their latest influx, more than a 100,000 Rohingyas showed up at a public rally where they reiterated their demand for citizenship of Myanmar before agreeing to any form of repatriation. Three days earlier, a second attempt to repatriate Rohingyas under an agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh signed in late 2017 failed again since not one Rohingya showed up, even though the Myanmar government had vetted and cleared more than 3,000 names for return to Myanmar.
Ever since, the Bangladesh government has been slowly but surely shifting its position on the crisis. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who had once famously stated that Bangladesh feeds 160 million, and questioned what difference an extra million would make, said last week that the Rohingyas were a burden on Bangladesh. Soon after the failed repatriation attempt and rally, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen claimed the rally had been organized by NGOs and barred 41 NGOs from operating in the camps.
The government also blocked mobile phone services inside the camp. A number of senior government officials, especially from law enforcement, who had established a working relationship with NGOs and Rohingyas have been transferred and a new set of officials have joined. There is fear among Rohingyas that these new officials have been specifically sent to strong arm Rohingyas to agree to repatriation. NGO officials at the camp claim that at least for the first two weeks after the August 25 rally, law enforcers working at the check posts at entry points to the camp had intensified their search of vehicles - a visible attempt to make life difficult for NGO workers.
Meanwhile, locals in Cox's Bazaar, who had once accepted the Rohingyas with open arms, appear to have had a change of heart for some time now. Most locals now blame Rohingyas for spike in crimes, drug trade and prostitution – a sentiment fueled by reports in the local media, which is now being picked up by the national media as well. Things became extremely precarious on August 24, when a local Jubo League leader was reportedly murdered by Rohingyas.
"You can feel the tension inside the camp. We are all forced inside our houses by 8.30pm, soon after Isha prayers," says Mostak, a young teacher at one of the madrasas in the Kutapalong camp.
Dressed in white kurta, lungi and skull cap, Mostak looks and sounds every bit as Bangali as any local. He has a close cropped beard on his chin that is only visible from up close and he's comfortable and open. That is, until he's asked how he learned to speak Bangla so well.
"It's hard to know whom to trust and whom not to," he says, finally. Even though Mostak arrived in Bangladesh during this last influx, he has lived in Bangladesh for extended periods before. He received training in becoming a Hafez from the famous Hathazari madrassah, run by Hefazat e Islam leader Allama Shafi, and even briefly worked at a mosque in Cumilla.
If Mostak were to ever leave the camp and settle with the local community, it would be virtually impossible to identify him as a foreigner, until he decided to reveal the information himself. I ask him whether he has any such plans.
"Of course not. We belong in Burma, not Bangladesh. We had to escape our country to save our lives, our religion."
"We can't go back until the circumstances that drove us out changes."
That seems to be the overwhelming emotion among Rohingyas across a cross-range of the population. Until the Myanmar government agrees to provide Rohingyas citizenship, recognize their ethnicity as Rohingyas and create circumstances for them to return to homesteads safely – they will not return. These are the words of not just the Rohingyas who arrived recently, but also of those who have been living here for decades, as well as of the organisations working with them. These are the words that the Rohingya leaders who spoke at the August 25 rally reiterated. At this point, it almost feels rehearsed.
"They are still torturing our people and burning our houses. How are we supposed to return?" asks Md Mohibullah, chairman of Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, the main organizer of the August 25 rally.
"Repatriation is stuck because no one is addressing the central issue – that of the citizenship of Rohingyas," says Md Shafiullah, upazila parishad chairman of Naikhanchhori district in Bandarban and descendant of a family that migrated to Naikhanchhori from Rakhine district in Myanmar in the 1950s.
"Life is better here for Rohingyas; there are many dangers lurking if they go back," he says.
Local government officials – not without a degree of sympathy – agree.
"When the Rohingyas arrived here in the past, they had some part of the family as well their homesteads to return to. This time, they arrived with their entire family and their homes have been razed," says a senior police official based in Cox's Bazar. "They have no incentive to return."
All roads lead to nowhere
For the Rohingyas, their problems are tripartite. First, there are the locals who feel the Rohingyas have overstayed their welcome in Cox's Bazaar. They blame the Rohingyas for all the real and imagined ills that plague the district – including exorbitant rents, land prices, traffic congestion, sex crimes and drug trade.
Then there is the Bangladesh government that is quickly losing patience with them and is desperate to send them back.
Finally, there is the Myanmar government who has so far agreed to take them back in very small numbers after an extensive process of vetting, without any guarantees of citizenship, recognition of Rohingya ethnicity, or even their safety and security. They have instead built camps in which the Rohingyas will be housed once they return.
The reaction of the locals is partly driven by jealousy – the feeling the Rohingyas are better off than locals because of the aid going into the camps. Many camp dwellers make a healthy living through cash-for-work programmes, alongside food rations and a food card that provides them with 15 kinds of food. Every now and then the aid agencies provide them household utensils, cosmetics etc and there are complaint centres in every block where they can log complaints if they have not received the promised goods.
"They tell us that the land they live on was purchased by the Saudis for them and they owe us nothing. It's apparently because of them that we get UNHCR jobs," says Tofail Ahmed, a former upazila parishad chairman of Naikhanchhori, where many Rohingyas who moved here earlier reside. Tofail is known as a virulent anti-Rohingya campaigner.
"At the start, the locals had a chance to be directly involved with the fate of the Rohingyas. While most locals were helpful, some also looked to exploit them, going as far as directly snatching their money and jewelry. Now that the camp is fully organized, the locals have nothing to do with it and they are not happy," says the senior police official.
This feeling is strongest among local journalists who have a reputation for being notoriously corrupt. Unable to cash in on the crisis, they have been the driving force behind reports on violence, drug trade, killing and kidnappings inside the camp. These stories have then been picked up by the national media and, sometimes, by the international media as well.
"The level of crime inside the camps is no different from the level of crime you find in the local community," says the police official, contradicting the media reports.
Irrespective of local reactions, local government officials, authorities and most Rohingya representatives feel that the major roadblock to repatriation lies in the Bangladesh-Myanmar deal.
"To start with, the deal between Bangladesh and Myanmar government is extremely flawed. If you allow Myanmar to vet each and every name, then it will take us a few lifetimes to complete repatriation," says Mohibullah.
"The Myanmar minister who came in August actually agreed to sit with us regarding our demands for citizenship, recognition of our ethnicity and safe return to our homes as a result of all the international pressure they are facing," says Mohibullah.
"And since the Bangladesh government is now trying to rush things through, they are simply playing into the hands of Myanmar authorities who can now claim they are open to repatriation but Bangladesh is failing to deliver the Rohingyas," he adds.
"Bangladesh has eroded a lot of the international goodwill accumulated over the last two years with their sudden crackdown on the Rohingyas," says a top INGO official on condition of anonymity. "At the United Nations General Assembly, Bangladesh is probably going to face a lot of heat over this.
Too many leaders spoil negotiations
Various people tied to the welfare of Rohingyas – including local leaders, NGOs and government officials - feel the first order of business for Bangladesh would be to identify the people among Rohingyas with whom to negotiate.
"The government should have more control over the camps so that it can identify representatives among Rohingyas with whom they can negotiate," says Taslim Iqbal Chowdhury, a union parishad chairman at Naikhanchhori.
This, however, is easier said than done.
For a number of years, the Rohingyas have been represented by various organisations, foremost among whom is Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO). Most of the top leadership of RSO are Rohingyas who fled to Bangladesh during past influxes. In recent years, however, they have lost some of their popularity among Rohingyas, and a younger generation, especially ones who have directly faced the wrath of the Myanmar military, appear to have a soft corner for Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the organization that reportedly carried out an attack on a military camp in Rakhine and triggered the latest crisis.
Regardless, the RSO leadership still has ties to a strong network of Rohingyas living around the world and possesses the ability to carry out global campaigns and generate funds.
Also in the mix is a new leadership emerging from the camp itself – individuals like Mohibullah – who want a chair at the negotiation table. Mohibullah, though, has drawn some negative attention since the rally, as some feel he has been propped up by the NGOs. And there is the diaspora living in different countries, operating under different umbrellas, with different agendas tied to the fate of Rohingyas.
These organisations disagree on a lot of things – whether to confront the Myanmar army through violence or peaceful means – but one thing they agree upon is that Myanmar is still unsafe for the Rohingyas to return.
"You can shut down their mobile network or, for that matter, their access to aid, but if the other option is to walk to your death, then the Rohingyas are not moving from here anytime soon," says a top official of an INGO working at the camp.
Shafiullah feels there is no quickfire solution to the crisis.
"The troubles really began with the renaming of Arakan state to Rakhine state, which basically recognized the rights of the Arakanese Buddhists, who are also known as Rakhines, over the state, leaving the Muslims out,' says Shafiullah.
"Myanmar authorities are unwilling to recognize the Muslims of Rakhine as Rohingyas and instead call them Bengalis. If they want to have their way in not accepting Rohingyas as a separate ethnicity, then Rakhine should be made Arakan state once again, and Rohingyas will accept being called Arakanese Muslims," he adds.
Biting off more than Bangladesh can chew?
While the Bangladesh government may spout lines from Cox's Bazar's local media for the time being, top officials from the Bangladesh government are very aware that until they can kickstart the repatriation process very soon, they might be stuck with the Rohingyas forever.
In the long run, when the international attention dries up, when the aid slows down, Bangladesh will have to carry the burden of 1 million people who are barely able to look after themselves.
"We have so far only been able to meet 38% of yearly needs to support the Rohingyas," says the top NGO official. "At this rate, if circumstances don't change, aid will dry up in about three years."
If NGOs indeed pack their bags and leave in a few years and the Rohingyas still refuse to return to Myanmar, then Bangladesh is in trouble. This is exactly why the Bangladesh government has become desperate. Having signed a hasty repatriation agreement with Myanmar in 2017 where the latter has the right to extensively vet every candidate, there is very little Bangladesh can do to force Myanmar's hand in taking back Rohingyas. It also does not appear, at least for now, that the Rohingyas will budge from their position to not return.
What's left for Bangladesh to do now is convince the major international players to put pressure on Myanmar.
"If pressure is put on the Myanmar generals through the independent fact finding mission, if China intervenes and if the US places sanctions, then Myanmar will definitely budge. They are still heavily dependent on the big countries for their survival," says Mohibullah.
The election to decide camp-in-charges, slated for September 5, was later cancelled.