“Rohingyas have so many children. It is high time they are pushed back, lest they destroy our economy,” says Jamaal a taxi driver in Dhaka. For an Indian brought up on a steady diet of Hindu nationalist propaganda on the fecundity of Indian Muslims or illegal immigrants from “Bangladesh”, there was a dollop of irony to these allegations.

Now, the average Bangladeshi has become quite sensitive about the health of the economy as the country’s GDP cruises to 7.65 per cent growth. They don’t want anything to derail it and least of all by the wretched of the earth and world’s most persecuted people — the Rohingyas. Even the Bangladesh government of Sheikh Hasina, which will face elections later this year, is leveraging not its universally praised magnanimity to provide haven to Rohingya refugees, but its economic performance to win a re-election.

Earlier this year, the government choreographed a joyous celebration of Bangladesh’s transition from a less developed country to a developing one. There were processions and parties to celebrate a Bangladesh come of age. Though there was plenty of criticism in the media about this public display of exultation over the improvement in the country’s status when lives of people hadn’t changed much, the yardstick for the elevation was the improvement in per capita income.

High growth rate

Economist Kaushik Basu gave a context to Bangladesh’s high growth rate, by pointing out that it has been faster than Pakistan’s for the past 12 years. On human development index, too, Bangladesh’s performance can embarrass India by some distance. However, there is growing worry amongst Bangladeshis that the economic gains of the past 10 years brought in by political stability could dissipate due to the burden caused by the ballooning refugee problem. The population of these refugees has crossed a million since the Burmese troops chased the Rohingyas — mostly Muslims — from their villages in the Rakhine province last year.

Cox’s Bazar

There were targeted killings and rapes, which humanitarian agencies claim were genocidal in intent. Most of them crossed over Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar.

Cox’s Bazar is not new to refugees. Due to the hostility of the Burmese people towards “ Indian Muslims” as they were called for the past 100-odd years, they have been coming to this coastal town with the world’s longest sand beach from the nearby Arakan hills.

This region then was under British East India Company. Ironically, the city is named after Captain Hiram Cox, who was mandated to settle Arakanese around this coastal town when Warren Hastings was the Governor of Bengal.

The influx of refugees over so many years has not prepared the Bangladeshi society or local people of Cox’s Bazar to their growing presence. On many occasions that this city has seen refugees, they have returned to their villages after peace was restored by the local administration.

This time around, the situation looks different. Much has to do with the manner in which the international aid organisations and NGOs have trooped in here.

Zulfiqar, who is a higher functionary of Bangladesh’s NGO, BRAC, is worried for the future of the young in Cox’s Bazar. According to him many of those who were studying left their education to join these international relief organisations. “When these refugees go back to Myanmar then what will they do? Who will give them such high salaries as they have no skills or education?”

However, these are least of the worries for the local people, who are adjusting to the monumental effort put in by the government of Bangladesh and humanitarian organisations to save the Rohingya refugees from the possible catastrophe of harsh monsoon rains and cyclones. A UNHCR source claims that their state is worse than that of the Syrians or Iraqis.

A visit to Kutupolang, Cox’s Bazar’s biggest camp makes it clear why the refugee camps are teetering on the verge of a major humanitarian crisis as the refugee shacks have come up on undulating muddy tracts.

The fear is that when the rains and squalls hit these parts then the fragile shelters will be swept away in landslides.

These Rohingyas cannot really escape this calamity till they are promptly relocated to flat land. “ Nowhere in the world are refugee camps set up in these kind of hilly slopes,” reminds a relief expert. Where can these refugees really go once the rains come down and the site where the camp is located turns into a slushy mess?

There are not many options as the government, cognisant of the sensitivities of the local people have ring-fenced the entire camp. Rohingyas cannot step out of its confines or mix with the local people till they are engaged in some business with them.

Negative implications

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is cognisant of the negative implications of the refugee crisis on the economy and also on her politics when elections are held later this year.

Though she has earned encomiums from the world community by displaying her large heartedness, she knows that she would be benefiting electorally if she can send the refugees back to Myanmar. This does not seem to be happening anytime soon.

Last November, there was an agreement between the Bangladesh and the Myanmar governments to repatriate the Rohingya back to their villages, but little headway has been made. No one in these camps really wants to return to their villages till they are assured of safety and also citizenship papers. The Myanmar government has made no such offer as yet. Most of the refugees look well-settled in this refugee life, which is a major improvement over living under constant fear.

In these circumstances, the government of Bangladesh has come out with a creative solution, which has not found favour with either the refugees or the humanitarian agencies. Last year, the government came out with a proposal to shift some of the refugees (about one lakh) to a recently surfaced floating island in the Bay of Bengal.

Called “Thengar Char”, this island is seeing some furious construction by Bangladeshi and Chinese workers. This will be a temporary abode, Bangladeshi authorities claim.

The process to shift these refugees is expected to begin from June this year, but the humanitarian agencies are claiming that it will be similar to refoulement as the Rohingyas will be sent against their wishes and will be in a worse state than they were in Myanmar.

As a relief specialist said, it will be like “ kala pani ”— the open penitentiary in Andaman Island where all the Indian freedom fighters were kept by the British rulers. The Bangaldeshi authorities have made it clear that the refugees would not be allowed to enter Bangladesh or escape to freedom to India or elsewhere from this island.

If the government in Dhaka manages to push this proposal through by claiming that the refugee recipient country has the freedom to set up camps anywhere in the country, the persecuted minority of Rohingyas would have to think many times over before crossing over to Bangladesh when chased by their tormentors.

The author is the Editor of Delhi-based ‘Hardnews Magazine’. He was recently in Cox’s Bazar