Residents of a sub-district in southeastern Bangladesh, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar are sheltering, took to the streets Tuesday to demand the refugees’ speedy repatriation.
About 100 locals gathered in front of the administrative office of Ukhia sub-district to urge the government to accelerate the process of sending the refugees back to their home state of Rakhine, just across the border in Myanmar. The Bangladeshis said they feared for their safety if the repatriation did not begin soon.
“The people of Ukhia are worried and they have been spent sleepless nights as a section of the Rohingya people have been active in criminal activities inside and outside the camps. They have been killing themselves. They must go now,” M. Gafur Uddin Chowdhury, chairman of Palongkhali Union council, told demonstrators during the three-hour protest.
Ten days earlier, groups of Rohingya refugees staged demonstrations at different camps in Ukhia leading up to Jan. 22, the deadline declared by Bangladesh and Myanmar to start repatriation as agreed to under a bilateral deal struck in November. The deadline passed without the process beginning.
The Rohingya protesters said they would be killed if they returned to Rakhine after being forced to leave their home villages. At least 655,000 have fled to Bangladesh since late August 2017 to escape a brutal crackdown by Myanmar’s military and Buddhist vigilante groups.
Altogether about 1 million Rohingya refugees, who fled that and earlier cycles of violence in Rakhine, are sheltering in Ukhia and another sub-district of Cox’s Bazar district.
“We have given the Rohingya food and shelter at our houses. We cannot host them anymore. I urge the government to repatriate them as soon as possible,” Rafiqul Islam, an Ukhia resident and protest organizer, told BenarNews.
He said business opportunities for local residents were being squeezed by the Rohingya.
“The U.N. agencies, international and national NGOs, relief agencies and media houses are recruiting Rohingya men and women. But the local people are not getting enough jobs,” Islam said.
In addition, Rohingya set up camps on farmland, ruining local agriculture, a protester said.
“All hills in Ukhia are flattened for the Rohingya. This season we cannot grow any vegetables here. Once abundant in vegetables, Ukhia people now buy vegetables at higher prices as the businessmen bring it from Chittagong,” Shibli Azad told BenarNews.
“We want their immediate repatriation to Rakhine. Guests cannot be hosted for months, years and decades. These Rohingya have been intruding in Ukhia since late 1970s. This time we fear they may not go,” he said.
On Tuesday, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) challenged employment concerns, saying that Bangladeshis were applying for jobs and learning skills tied to humanitarian efforts for Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar.
“The influx of Rohingya refugees, which began in late August last year, has expanded job opportunities across a wide range of aid jobs in Cox’s Bazar, where the IOM, the U.N. migration agency, has hired about 500 Bangladeshis in the past five months. Hundreds of others have found new jobs with other international and national aid agencies,” IOM said in a statement.
Since August 2017, the 500 Bangladeshis have joined more than 250 national staff who were working for IOM.
“The majority are working on the frontline of the refugee crisis in Cox’s Bazar, playing important roles in supporting both the refugee and host communities, while learning a broad range of new skills,” IOM said.
Meanwhile, some Rohingya have said they would return to Myanmar if conditions are met.
“We are grateful to Bangladesh for sheltering us at the time of need. We want to return to Arakan only if the government there ensures our safety and security,” Shafiul Alam, a camp leader in Ukhia, told BenarNews.
“All Rohingya people would leave Bangladesh if the Burmese (Myanmar) government returns our citizenship and our immovable property,” he said.