Deep in southern Bangladesh in a sweltering camp of mud houses where the first wave of Rohingya Muslims from Burma are sheltered, there is fear rising that they have to move again, 22 years after they crossed the river or sped through the forests.
The refugees are worried the Bangladesh government wants them out of sight, perhaps to one of its islands in the Bay of Bengal, as the two countries row over what to do with one of the world’s most persecuted minorities and whose search for security is driving a migrant crisis in southeast Asia.
There are about 33,000 men, women and children cramped into two dilapidated camps in the villages of Kutupalong and Nayapara, near the Burma border that are supported by the U.N. and the Bangladesh government.
But there are anything from 200,000 to 400,000 more Rohingyas in nearby camps and hills who have been streaming across the border over the years whom the government will not even recognise as temporary refugees lest it weaken its case to send them back to Burma.
A political adviser to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, H.T. Imam, said the Rohingya must go back; despite Bangladesh feeling for them, they are citizens of Burma and Bangladesh is no longer able to host them.
He added that the presence of such a large number of aliens with no identity and no work was causing problems to the local community.
A bigger concern is that if Bangladesh kept accepting the fellow Muslims from Burma, it would only encourage Naypyidaw to push more of an estimated 1.1 million of them across the border.
Buddhist-majority Burma considers the Rohingya as illegal Bengali immigrants even though they have lived for generations in its northern Arakan state.
[pullquote]The refugees are not supposed to go out and mix with the locals – pending their repatriation that Dhaka hopes to achieve one day.[/pullquote]
But Bangladesh, one of the world’s most densely populated countries of 160 million people, says the presence of such a large number of foreign nationals is hindering development.
The federal government has explored the possibility of an alternate site for the Rohingyas, officials said, adding it would also benefit the displaced people.
Mohammad Shah Kamal, Secretary in the ministry of disaster management and relief, said he had proposed alternate space for the camps, but the land ministry couldn’t find any.
Since then reports have emerged in the local media that the government was considering moving the two camps to Hatiya island, several hours of journey by bus and boat.
A government official said Hasina had said at a recent meeting that the camps were coming in the way of tourism in Cox’s Bazar, which boasts the world’s longest unbroken beach.
Hasina suggested officials look for an uninhabited stretch of land near a river bed to accommodate the camps, the official who was present at the meeting said, seeking anonymity.
Bakhtiar Ahmed, a former member of the Kutupalong village, said he had been asked to produce a report about the impact of a possible relocation of the Rohingya camps.
One effect, the government hopes, will be to deter more refugees coming from Burma, once they know the new areas of habitation are in remote territory.
Inside the camp, Nur Alam, looking much older than his 43 years, said word had spread through the community about plans to move them. People were worried.
“I have learned form local people that we will be moved to another place, Noakhali. If there is peace then I will go, but I am also learning from people that there is not peace so I will not (go). We are happy here in this camp,” he said.
His wife Rupban, 35, standing outside their dwelling – set in a grove of trees and so small that you had to nearly crawl to enter – did not want to move either.
“We learned that we will be taken to Noakhali (another place) to live. If there is peace (there), no problem, but if there is no peace, we will not go, because everyone here came from Burma (Burma) and we are living here like brothers and sisters. But if we go to another place, we do not know people there, and we fear that we might even be tortured. If there peace, then we will go – otherwise, no,” she said.
Nur Alam has an additional problem. One of his seven kids is not registered because he was born to a second wife he took later on. His worry is he would have to leave the 11-year-old boy behind while the rest of them move.
The children played around the small and sparse hut at the edge of the unmarked camp which is closed to outsiders. Even the refugees are not supposed to go out and mix with the locals – pending their repatriation that Dhaka hopes to achieve one day.
The family lives off the rations provided by the aid agencies and there is little else to do.
But there are some signs of change from the time they fled Burma with just the clothes on their back. Nur Alam held a cellphone in his hand and a goat was tied to the doorway.
Ruhul Amin, 43, who crossed over from Burma seven years ago, is desperate to be listed as one of the documented refugees like Nur Alam and live inside the camp where things like soaps are given and children attend classes.
Instead he and his family of eight live in a hillside of shrub and whatever he earned as a daily labourer.
He said he would get jobs for 250 Bangladesh Taka (US$3.22) a day, half what a local would be paid. Sometimes they get alms during religious days.
If the authorities told him to move, he would have no choice, he said, adding: “but we can’t go back to Burma.”
Some 200 Rohingyas have left for Malaysia in the past four years from the Kutupalong camp. Another 500 have gone from the unofficial camps, said village official Ahmed.
One reason, the mood has turned harder on the Rohingyas in recent weeks is that locals are blaming them for luring their family members to take the dangerous journey abroad.
“What I feel is that the Rohingya refugees who are living in Bangladesh, they started being trafficked to Malaysia about three, four years back, and then later the people of our country came to know that there are good job opportunities there (in Malaysia) so they started going (too). But the main network was started by the Rohingya refugees,” said Ahmed.
On Saturday, police arrested one of the members of the refugee camp for involvement in the trafficking, he added.
The United Nations estimates that in the first quarter of 2015, 25000 people left for southeast Asia, more than double than in 2014 and 2013. Of these 40 percent to 60 percent were Rohingyas and the rest Bangladeshis.