Seeking safety from Rakhine fighting, Rohingya pay to be smuggled to Bangladesh

Authorities, recently arrived refugees say clashes between Myanmar junta, rebels drove them across the border.
Abdur Rahman and Ahammad Foyez
2024.07.02
Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, and Dhaka
Seeking safety from Rakhine fighting, Rohingya pay to be smuggled to Bangladesh The Bangladesh Coast Guard patrols the Naf river for boats carrying Rohingya from Myanmar, July 2, 2024.
Abdur Rahman/BenarNews

Rohingya are being brought into southeastern Bangladesh by smugglers as fighting between ethnic rebel groups and junta-aligned forces worsens next-door in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, said officials and border crossers interviewed by BenarNews.

Smugglers are targeting members of the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority who are trying to flee clashes between Myanmar’s junta and the Arakan Army, one of the most prominent militias, according to interviews with authorities and Rohingya who recently arrived at a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar district.

Police said they had tightened security at the border, but conceded that more people had been crossing over from Myanmar in recent weeks.

“As the sound of explosions continued on the Myanmar side, I learned that a part of the Rohingyas are staying in different places on the bank of the Naf river on Myanmar’s side,” Teknaf Municipality Panel Mayor Mujibur Rahman told BenarNews.

Mohammad Yusuf, a Rohingya who recently traveled to Bangladesh from the Buthidaung area of Rakhine, said he stayed in the mountains for 40 days where he survived by eating leaves.

“There were 13 members of my family. But suddenly one day, a bomb exploded in my village, and then everyone ran away to save their lives. It is not known where the rest have gone,” he told BenarNews. “We, two brothers together, walked for three days in the hilly area and swam across the river. We were accompanied by seven other people from other villages on the journey.” 

While Yusuf’s group traveled to Bangladesh, he said others worked with brokers to go to Indonesia or Malaysia.

“Families who have money are mainly trying to send young people [away from Myanmar] as youths become targets of both the Arakan Army and Myanmar military,” he said.

Authorities said smugglers – known as “brokers” locally – are active on both sides of the Naf, which marks the border between southeastern Bangladesh and northwestern Myanmar.

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said over 70,000 Rohingya were trapped in Rakhine as fighting rages.

Community leaders said brokers were collecting money from Rohingya to leave Myanmar, but did not release any details about recent crossings.

Mohammad Amir Zafar, who commands an Armed Police Battalion (APBn) in Bangladesh, said Rohingya who have been forced from their homes are willing to pay to get across the border.

BD-MN-rohingya2.jpg
A Bangladeshi stands at the Teknaf-Myanmar Transit Jetty wharf along the Naf river in Cox’s Bazar and listens to gunfire in Myanmar where military troops fight with rebels, July 1, 2024. [Abdur Rahman/BenarNews]

“The brokers who are involved in this work will be brought to justice,” he told BenarNews.

Along with the APBn, members of the Bangladesh Coast Guard and Border Guard Bangladesh are stationed near the border to prevent infiltration.

Route to safety

Many Rohingya walked from their homes in Rakhine state to the Naf river, where brokers sat in boats waiting to collect fees to carry them across the river.

Mohammad Saje, who entered Bangladesh on June 28 ago and took shelter at a camp with a relative, said he and 12 others crossed the river during heavy rain.

“My home is at Buthidaung. Everything has been destroyed in the war there. My father was killed by a mortar shell attack,” he told BenarNews, adding that the Arakan Army entered his village and ordered everyone leave within an hour. 

“After that, we left the area with some food. Sixty youths were caught by the Arakan Army – I don’t know what happened to them, adding, “I saw with my own eyes the scene of the killing of many young men on the way.” 

Arriving near the river in Maungdaw, he and others took shelter for three days before paying 400,000 kyat (U.S. $190) each for a ride across the river. 

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People walk through a Rohingya camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, March 9, 2023. [Mahmud Hossain Opu/AP]

Refugee camps in and around Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, seen as safe locations, are home to about 1 million Rohingya, including over 740,000 who have fled from Myanmar since a military crackdown in August 2017. 

Not all who flee from Myanmar are safe. On June 22, a Rohingya identified as Md. Anwar lost a leg in a land-mine explosion along the border as he tried to cross over from the Myanmar side.

On Tuesday, a Rohingya was killed in a mine blast near the border after crossing into Bangladesh, officials said.

Cox’s Bazar police station officer-in-charge Saiful Islam said the man, identified as Mohammad Ayash and who was between the ages of 22 and 25, undertook the border crossing during heavy rain.

“He was brought to Cox’s Bazar Sadar Hospital with injuries around 3 p.m. But the duty doctor said that he died before he was brought to the hospital,” Saiful Islam said. 

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