Tensions are rising as the deteriorating humanitarian situation and limited access to livelihoods for Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar’s largely Buddhist Rakhine State lead to accusations that some are smuggling drugs across the border into neighbouring Bangladesh.
“We have rounded up many Rohingyas with ‘yaba’ in their possession, which means they are being used as yaba carriers,” Major General Aziz Ahmed, director general of Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) told IRIN. “Recently we have opened six new camps along the border to prevent illegal entry of Rohingya and drugs.”
“Yaba” is a drug that contains morphine and amphetamine, and creates intense hallucinogenic effects. Users can remain awake for days at a time. The Bangladesh government’s Department of Narcotics Control has reported a surge in yaba seizures in recent years – from approximately 4,000 tablets in 2009 to more than 150,000 in 2013. The 2014 Global Synthetic Drugs Assessment by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports that the yaba seized in Bangladesh originates in Myanmar.
The approximately 800,000 Rohingyas have long faced persecution and discrimination, including being stateless in the eyes of Burmese law. Myanmar’s government claims that historically they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and labels them ‘Bengalis’. The Bangladesh government would like the Rohingya refugees in its territory to be repatriated.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are 200,000 to 500,000 Rohingyas in Bangladesh, of whom only 30,000 are documented and living in two government camps assisted by the agency, both within 2km of Myanmar. Most live in informal settlements or towns and cities in whatMédecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has described as “deplorable conditions”.
In March international aid workers were forced to flee western Myanmar after being targeted by Buddhist mobs that threw rocks at homes and offices in Sittwe, over perceived humanitarian bias towards Rohingyas. Agencies have been maneuvering to re-enter western Myanmar at full scale since then.
During a 13 June visit to IDP camps in Rakhine State, the Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, Kyung-wha Kang, called the situation “appalling, with wholly inadequate access to basic services including health, education, water and sanitation.” More than 140,000 Rohingya live in IDP camps.
Officials and experts say the lack of humanitarian access, intense security on both sides of the border, and the ongoing misery in Rakhine, coupled with the humanitarian reticence across the border in Bangladesh, is exposing Rohingyas to increasing exploitation and risk.
In a 2013 security survey in the area, 60 percent of respondents identified drug trafficking with the “most economically insecure and marginalized people to smuggle drugs” as a major cross-border activity.
“While we do not have any confirmation that Rohingya have been involved in moving drugs across the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, exploiting extremely vulnerable people in low-level and dangerous labour… is common around the world,” said Jeremy Douglas, Southeast Asia and Pacific regional representative for UNODC in Bangkok, Thailand.
“It's not about placing blame on the Rohingya for their involvement, but understanding that this happens because of their vulnerability and lack of other options for income.”
Rejecting the Rohingyas
“[The Rohingya are] creating enormous pressure on the otherwise vulnerable socio-economic, environmental and security situation in Cox’s Bazar and its surrounding areas,” said Khaleda Begum, senior information officer at Bangladesh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA).
The Rohingya as well as indigenous hill tribes are concentrated in Bangladesh’s southeastern coastal district of Cox’s Bazar. The area has among the country’s highest levels of illiteracy and poverty. Along the coast, deforestation has intensified the impact of periodic flooding.
“Bangladesh has made it absolutely clear that due to the aggravating security, law and order, socio-economic, demographic and environmental situation in our coastal areas, it is not possible for us to accommodate any further influx from Myanmar,” Begum said.
MoFA said the process of verifying and repatriating the 30,000 registered Rohingya refugees Bangladesh was underway until violence in Rakhine stalled the process in June 2012.
“It is absolutely critical to resume and complete the repatriation of refugees, so that both countries can also initiate necessary consular processes for the return of the millions of undocumented Myanmar Muslims from Rakhine State who are now residing in Bangladesh,” said Begum.
“The continued denial of citizenship rights to the Muslims in Rakhine State and systematic restriction on most of their fundamental rights and freedoms,” was a major impediment in the repatriation process, she noted.
Bangladesh’s humanitarian record regarding the Rohingya has in some ways mirrored Myanmar’s. In August 2012 Bangladeshi authorities ordered three NGOs - MSF, Action Against Hunger and Muslim Aid UK - to stop the formal delivery of humanitarian services to undocumented Rohingya refugees.
Later that year, Bangladeshi authorities used allegations that Rohingya were responsible for a violent attack on Buddhist temples and homes in the Cox’s Bazar area to justify sweeping arrests.
Muktar Hossain, chief of police in Teknaf, a city in southern Bangladesh near the two registered camps, said, “Rounding up the Rohingya Muslims who cross, or try to cross, into Bangladesh is our routine work. We arrest from one to five Rohingyas … from Bangladesh almost daily.”
The typical protocol is to file an illegal immigration case in court, but he admitted, “We also hand them over to BGB for push back.”
No choice but to “mule”
“I would not deny the allegation of Rohingyas being used as yaba mules [drug carriers], but they are very few in numbers,” said Mohammad Islam, a Rohingya refugee living in Bangladesh, previously chairman of the Noyapara Rohingya Camp in Cox's Bazar. “Some Rohingyas get involved in drug peddling out of poverty, to earn some money. Rohingyas in Burma are in trouble. They are dying out there due to lack of food and basic services.”
Rafiqul Islam, police chief in Naikkhangchhari, a Bangladeshi border town, told IRIN police there have arrested people crossing the border with anywhere between 2,000 to 20,000 yaba tablets in their possession.
"During interrogations, they mention varied amounts of money -- from 500 to 10,000 taka ($US6.50 to $130) -- that they get paid for carrying yaba each time," he said.
Chowdhury Abrar, a professor of international relations and coordinator of the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit at the University of Dhaka, cautioned that accusations of Rohingyas as drug runners must be seen in a political context.
“The claim that Rohingyas are being used as yaba mules is one-sided, made by the Bangladeshi government. But if in some cases Rohingyas are in fact being used as yaba mules - if those people, who have no shelter on either side of the border, are doing the drug peddling to earn some money - then they are in further danger,” he said.
UNODC’s Douglas pointed out that “Drug trafficking networks are well-organized and well-funded, and they use people who don't have much to lose to operate in dangerous border areas - this is what appears to be happening between Bangladesh and Myanmar.”