In the corridors of power in Bangladesh, a fresh wave of action has begun with the target of resolving the longstanding Rohingya refugee crisis. Following failed attempts in 2018 and 2019, the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar, supported by China, are again striving to repatriate the Rohingya with 1,100 refugees marked for this pilot initiative. But the means to this end—orchestrated primarily by the National Security Intelligence (NSI) of Bangladesh—have led to a stir within the international community and raised concerns regarding the potential violation of Bangladesh’s international obligations.
While the NSI’s tactics are ambitious and highly organized, they’re not without controversy. There are disturbing reports and video evidence circulating on social media platforms detailing how the refugee camp authorities, allegedly under the direction of the NSI, have threatened the Rohingya refugees. Allegations include threats of arrest and document confiscation if they resist the repatriation plans. Furthermore, there are reports of refugees being offered substantial monetary rewards in exchange for their agreement to return to Myanmar.
These heavy-handed tactics have cast a shadow over the efforts of the NSI and raise important ethical questions about the entire repatriation initiative. In their pursuit of repatriation, the NSI has been proactive in urging the Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar camps to rally for their return to Myanmar. Under the banner of the “Let’s Go Home” campaign, the intelligence agency has not only facilitated these demonstrations but has also equipped them with appropriate paraphernalia, carefully curated messaging, and safety assurances. Such tactics are not new, with the NSI launching a comparable campaign about a year ago, as reported in The Diplomat, and renewing their efforts this year in June.
The NSI strategy involved refugee camp demonstrations to broadcast a singular message: the Rohingya desire to return to their homeland. Any attempt to obstruct this repatriation is painted as an unwelcome intervention. What’s noticeable is the deliberate omission of demands related to rights, citizenship, or justice, thus simplifying the messaging to focus solely on repatriation. Interestingly, many of the banners used bear the signature “general Rohingya people”, perhaps a clumsy attempt to deflect questions about their origin. While the NSI role is undoubtedly significant, the nature of its responsibilities in the Rohingya camps remains obscure. This lack of transparency has led to several unanswered questions about the scope, legality, and financing of their operations.
My inquiries to the NSI, seeking clarity about their officially mandated role, the unique services or assistance they provide, their formally articulated mission, and their measures to foster trust and open communication with the Rohingya community, have been met with silence. Fortify Rights, a human rights organization, has criticized the NSI role in managing the refugee crisis, particularly regarding the reported coercion of refugees to relocate them to Bhasan Char, an island prone to flooding off the coast of Bangladesh. According to them, NSI officers, in collaboration with Camp-in-Charge (CiC) officials, held meetings with Rohingya Majhis and allegedly misled them into convincing refugees to relocate. This relocation, reportedly executed through coercive practices and intimidation, violates the agreement between the Bangladesh government and the U.N. Refugee Agency that states all relocations should be voluntary.
Olivier de Schutter, a Special Rapporteur, has been critically outspoken about the plight of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh following his recent visit to the camps. He emphasized the alarming dependency of the refugees on humanitarian support, expressing grave concern over the conditions he found to be “absolutely terrible.” According to him, he has rarely encountered people in “such a state of desperation.” Forced into a state of inactivity due to work prohibitions, the refugees are grappling with increasing rates of gender-based violence and an escalating breakdown in camp security.
Their vulnerability is further magnified by the constant threat of extreme weather events, since their shelters, made of bamboo and tarpaulin due to construction bans, provide little to no resilience to wind and rain. On top of these challenges, the World Food Programme (WFP) has dealt another blow by announcing a reduction in the monthly food ration for Rohingya refugees from $12 to $8. This austerity measure, forced by insufficient funding for 2023, cuts the refugees’ capacity to purchase essentials like rice and other food products. The WFP expressed the direness of the situation stating, “or we will have no funds left very soon.”
In this landscape of mounting crisis, where refugees are grappling not just with political wrangling but also the relentless fight for survival, the NSI appears to be leveraging these hardships as a pretext to advance the repatriation narrative. They seem to be strategically focusing on the hardships in the camps and the desire for an end to this ‘refugee life’, while conveniently sidestepping the essential discourse around rights, citizenship, justice or sustainability in their repatriation campaign.
The banners used in the camps’ demonstrations—consistently emphasizing an urgency for repatriation with messages like “Myanmar is our Motherland. Let’s Go Home”, “Say No to Refugee Life. We want Reparations. We want to Go Back Home” and a stern warning directed at external actors, “Don’t try to stop Repatriation”—are a stark testament to this. This highlights the NSI apparent objective of shaping a narrative favouring repatriation under any circumstances—even if it means disregarding the fundamental rights and safety of the Rohingya.
Following the “Go Home” campaign, both local and international media appeared to echo the official line of Bangladesh, primarily at the headline level, showcasing an eager will among Rohingya to return to Myanmar. Yet, the content of the articles reported a different story: they all referenced Rohingya, both named and anonymous, who were explicit in their refusal to indulge in unsafe repatriation.
They emphasized the need for their rights and affirmed they would not merely move from one camp in Bangladesh to another one in Myanmar. In one particular camp, the momentum took an unexpected turn as the meticulously crafted NSI messaging met its nemesis in an impassioned speech delivered by Jamalida, which has since achieved the status of an internet meme among the Rohingya community. The NSI hadn’t prepared for potent Rohingya orators like Jamalida, who were bold in their denunciation of the plan.
In a shaky yet defiant voice, Jamalida – a mother of two – eloquently voiced the concerns of many refugees: “The Burmese government, like before, wants us to return, so they can kill us. We do not agree, we do not agree, we will not go, we tell the world. We will absolutely not go. We will only go back with our rights and citizenship. Otherwise, my fellow Rohingya, we will not go back.” Such powerful declarations disrupt the narrative that the NSI is trying to construct, and give a poignant reminder that beneath the political maneuvering are real people with deep fears, desires, and a thirst for justice.
Shafiur Rahman is a journalist and documentary filmmaker covering Rohingya issues.
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