ANALYSIS – Rohingya refugee crisis: Beirut syndrome in Cox’s Bazar

By Khawaza Main Uddin

– The writer, a journalist based in Bangladesh's capital Dhaka, is the winner of the UN Millennium Development Goals Award, Developing Asia Journalism Award, and WFP Award. He has master’s degrees in both journalism and international relations.

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AA) – Applauded worldwide for welcoming the persecuted Rohingya in the southern Bangladeshi district of Cox’s Bazar two years ago, local community is getting frustrated at the Myanmar nationals’ prolonged stay on their soil.

Many of the hosts could not hide their discontent after a major attempt of repatriation on Aug. 22 failed and the refugees held a huge rally on Aug. 25 to mark the second anniversary of their eviction from Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

The moment they expressed relief for not being deported from Bangladesh, Dhaka realized it was left with little option to send them back to Myanmar shortly.

The stateless ethnic Muslims, who have outnumbered the locals, expressed their unwillingness to return until recognition as citizens and the security of life and properties are guaranteed in their homeland.

The authorities are showing signs of toughness and the local people pose hostilities towards the refugees. Tensions are brewing since the murder of a local leader allegedly by a group of Rohingya on Aug. 23 and subsequent killing of four refugees in what law enforcement personnel reported as crossfire.

At least 10 Rohingya were killed in such a firing over the last month, according to the official reports.

This situation is reminiscent of the Palestinian refugee crisis in Beirut, Lebanon, a civil war-torn country bordering the state of Israel established on Palestine land in 1948.

Some Lebanese groups entangled in conflict with the Palestinians and Beirut, which was once vibrant like Casablanca or Dubai, turned into a bruised city.

Up to 3,500 civilians, mostly Palestinians and Lebanese, were killed in Sabra and Shatila massacres committed by a right-wing militia allied with Israel in 1982. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s guerrillas were eventually ejected from Beirut following a siege by the Israeli forces.

Cox’s Bazar, a beach town sharing its border with Myanmar, has hosted, on the slopes of hillocks, tens of thousands of men and women who escaped genocide in Myanmar. They were not allowed to enter neighboring India at a time when Turkey hosted three million Syrian refugees.

The Rohingya came in large number also in 1978 and 1992 but many have not left Bangladesh.

Their aggregate number in Cox’s Bazar — around 1.1 million — is more than double the army of Palestine refugees in Lebanon between 1948 and 1982.

“Our area has been crowded, commodity prices have gone up and our livelihoods have been seriously affected after their influx,” said Nurul Kabir, a member at Rajapalong Union Council in Ukhiya sub-district, where most camps are set up.

Some others blamed the Rohingya for destroying forest and hillocks as well as increasing number of vehicles in their neighborhood. A group of them launched a “Campaign to Save Cox’s Bazar” from the “infiltrators.”

Bangladesh Foreign Affairs Minister AK Momen vented his irritation after the setback for the political initiative, mediated by China, to repatriate the Rohingya as they feared further repression in Myanmar.

“The Rohingya have to go back… We want the situation there to improve. Our goal is to repatriate them. Steps would be taken if someone hinders the process,” he told the reporters.

His Awami League government has halted the operation of 41 NGOs in the Rohingya camps as they are being criticized for disrupting the latest repatriation move following another abortive attempt in November last year.

Since the Myanmar military crackdown on Aug. 25, 2017 led to exodus of more than 730,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh, around 1,100 inmates of the camps have been reportedly detained and charged with various crimes.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch urged Dhaka to end restrictions on Rohingya’s freedom of movement.

“The authorities should take a level-headed approach instead of overreacting to tensions and protests by isolating Rohingya refugees in camps,” Brad Adams, the Asia director of the group, said on Sept. 7.

There is another sentiment, as echoed in Cox’s Bazar beach or reflected on social networking sites, as to how long the Rohingya will sit idle and why a densely populated Bangladesh will continue to entertain the guests for years.

When the refugees’ presence has been a challenge, official records show, almost 100 newborns are being added to the million every day.

Muhammad Abul Kalam, the refugee, relief and repatriation commissioner of the Bangladesh government, just used euphemism in regretting that the host community is burdened with the situation since there are stresses on local resources.

“These displaced people need livelihoods. We cannot bear them for an indefinite period,” he told a foreign delegation recently.

Bangladesh’s generosity to receive the Rohingya in 2017 was appreciated widely and the ruling party supporters then gave their leader, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, a unique title — “the mother of humanity.”

In 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to allow entry of more than one million migrants into her country earned her global respect and she became a contender for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Given the disillusionment with the Rohingya policy, Rezaul Karim Chowdhury, executive director at the civil society organization COAST Trust, noted in his social media post: “Blaming the NGOs for failure to ensure the Rohingya’s voluntary return is meaningless and cursing the helpless people is inhuman… All of us can rather contribute to achieving diplomatic success while we as nation won’t die if we feed them.”

Still, such words may not stop others from having a suspicious look at the Rohingya camps where what happens after the sunset is hardly known to anyone in the outside world.

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.