Legal, Illegal Rohingya Settlements: Climbing number, rising concern
Bangladesh officially accommodates around 29,000 Rohingya refugees. However, different estimates suggest the number of the Myanmarese minorities living in and around Cox's Bazar ranges between 2.5 and 5 lakh.
In 2004, roughly around 2 lakh Rohingyas were living illegally in the region. According to locals this number has risen to 5 lakh as illegal immigration remains almost unchallenged along the coastal borders.
During a visit to the furthermost southern district in mid-2004, this correspondent found many small settlements of Rohingya squatters.
A playground in front of Teknaf Upazila Parishad office housed 11 thousand Rohingyas, who were evacuated later that year.
The Rohingya population moved to a rural place called Leda of Teknaf and Kutupalang of Ukhia.
The local administration roughly estimates that around 60 thousand now live in these two separate Rohingya settlements alone.
Feroz Salah Uddin, Rohingya refugee repatriation commissioner (RRRC) in Cox's Bazar, said around 14,500 Rohingyas lived at Leda and 40 to 45 thousand at Kutupalong.
These are not officially recognised as refugee camps.
But the intruders from Myanmar have occupied a vast stretch of land at Leda and Ukhia. The administration and some NGOs provide them with some basic facilities like water and sanitation on humanitarian grounds.
These intruders have also occupied pieces of land setting up makeshift statements in different places all over the district, even in the sea beach town. It is not hard to find their settlements also in Chittagong and hill districts.
Back in 2001, the then RRRC in a report to the government said apart from the registered refugees, there were over 1,50,000 Rohingya interlopers in Cox's Bazar. Although the report created a stir, the problem remained unaddressed.
Cox's Bazar district officials told this correspondent in 2004 that the number of intruders from Myanmar had exceeded two lakh.
There is no official record even today of the real number of illegal Rohingya immigrants due to the absence of a census.
After a visit to the district this year, it was evident to this correspondent that the number of Rohingya population has increased dramatically.
The population of two official Rohingya refugee camps in Cox's Bazar -- one at Nayapara and another at Kutupalong -- has increased to approximately 29 thousand from around 19 thousand over the last eight years.
Syed Amin, a 32-year-old registered Rohingya refugee at the Nayapara camp in Teknaf, told The Daily Star last month, “There are four to five lakh unregistered Rohingyas living here [in and around the district].”
“I don't know how they [unregistered Rohingyas] managed to cross the border into Bangladesh,” said Amin, also an elected president of B-block management committee of the camp.
“They have been given land to dwell on humanitarian grounds.”
In 2004, the Cox's Bazar office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which has remained silent on the issue of unregistered Rohingyas in Bangladesh, refused to talk despite repeated attempts by this reporter.
Eight years have passed. The UNHCR website now says, “The Government estimates that another 2,00,000 unregistered people of concern from Myanmar live in Bangladesh without any legal status, mostly in the villages outside the camps. Up to 40,000 of them live adjacent to or near Kutupalong and Nayapara camps, forming two settlements called the Kutupalong Makeshift Site and the Leda Site.”
The Rohingya intruders have set up settlements by cutting hills and forests. They are felling trees indiscriminately, intensifying environmental disaster threats, locals say.
These unsolicited Rohingya communities gradually became infamous to locals whose longstanding observation is that these settlers are involved in all sorts of crimes.
The illegal immigrants work mostly as day labourers while some are rickshaw-pullers and lumberjacks and some fish in the river and the sea.
Finding their labour cheap, many local influentials, including UP chairmen and members and politicians, help them stay.
The intrusion of Rohingyas from Myanmar has become a common feature in the region since their first influx as refugees in 1978.
The problem of illegal migration became so acute after the second influx in 1991-92 that many apprehend Rohingyas will become the majority population in this area, if the trend continues.
To flee into Bangladesh, the Rohingyas mainly use the waterways in Teknaf and Ukhia.
According to many Rohingyas, they come from Myanmar's bordering areas like Maungdaw, Buchidong, Rachidong, Akyab (now Sittwe), Momra and Chokt and sneak into Bangladesh at different points, including Teknaf, Shabrang, Shah Porir Dweep, Hnila, Howaikang, Moyapara and Jaliapara. They also enter the Chittagong Hill Tracts by crossing the land border.
Myanmar shares a 271-kilometre border with Cox's Bazar and Bandarban, 54km with Teknaf upazila alone.
The Rohingya intruders have gained basic Bangla speaking language skills over the years and become fluent in the local dialect.
With physiques similar to those of locals, they can mix well with the Bangladeshi community. Unless they disclose their identities, they can hardly be distinguished from others, locals observe.
There is no specific decision yet about so large a number of Rohingyas whom Bangladesh has been hosting for years. The people and officials say there should be a clear-cut policy to avert more crises.