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Rohingya refugees lie on a razed shop demolished by authorities in the Kutupalong camp in Ukhia, Bangladesh, December 10, 2021.  © 2021 Tanbir Miraj/AFP via Getty

(New York) – Bangladesh authorities have, in recent months, intensified their restrictions on Rohingya refugees’ livelihoods, movement, and education, Human Rights Watch said today. Officials have arbitrarily destroyed thousands of shops while imposing new obstacles on travel within the camps in Cox’s Bazar, denying the Rohingya the ability to live freely and independently.

Bangladesh authorities should lift the new restrictions, allow markets and schools to reopen, and facilitate donors’ efforts to improve refugees’ access to livelihoods, health care, and education.

“Bangladesh is understandably burdened with hosting nearly one million Rohingya refugees, but cutting them off from opportunities to work and study is only compounding their vulnerability and dependence on aid,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Bangladesh government should formalize and expand employment opportunities to bolster the Rohingya’s self-reliance and enable them to support their families and communities.”

Human Rights Watch, in February and March 2022, spoke with 13 Rohingya refugees who described how the new restrictions have prevented them from being able to provide for their families, give their children an education, or build communities. At the same time, Bangladesh officials have pressured the refugees to relocate to Bhasan Char island or return to Myanmar. The worsening conditions in the camps raises concerns that authorities are acting deliberately to coerce refugees to leave, Human Rights Watch said.

Even prior to the shop demolitions, Rohingya reported that access to employment was their greatest concern in the camps, according to a 2021 survey by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Although refugees are not officially permitted to work, over half the Rohingya and 30 percent of children ages 15 to17 reported doing informal work, putting them at risk of exploitation and arrest.

The informal marketplaces set up by Rohingya became vital sources of income for covering basic needs and supplementing aid rations. But beginning in October 2021, officials began bulldozing shops in several camps, often without notice. More than 3,000 shops have been destroyed, affecting tens of thousands of refugees.

Mohammed Ali, 37 (all refugees are identified by pseudonyms), ran a clothing shop that was demolished without notice, destroying 300,000 BDT (US$3,500) worth of clothes and leaving him in debt. “I had to take loans to build up the products in my store,” he said. “Now it’s become impossible for me to pay them back.”

A shopkeeper, Abdul Amin, 28, said that shop owners had tried to negotiate with the Camp-in-Charge (CiC, a Bangladesh official) when they heard other markets were being demolished. “They didn’t hear our requests,” he said. “They didn’t even allow us to take the remaining products from our shops. They just came and demolished with bulldozers. My loss is worth about a million BDT ($11,600).”

Abdul Amin said that 40 refugees depended on his business, including his 15 family members and the families of his four employees. “Now I cannot buy extra food needed for my family,” he said. “I cannot afford medicine needed for my mother. I cannot give my children education.… My workers have been continually telling me how tough it has become for them also to support their families.”

Refugees said that the income from the shops helped them supplement the limited food rations of oil, rice, and lentils. “The ration we get as aid isn’t enough for a whole family,” said Mohammed Ali, who had earned about 30,000 BDT ($350) a month at his clothing shop to support his family of 10.

Amir, 37, ran a mobile phone repair shop earning about 500 BDT ($6) a day, which allowed him to buy vegetables, fish, and necessary supplies for his six-person family. “Now the authorities won’t even allow me to run my business from my shelter,” he said. “I really don’t understand how our simple initiative to live slightly better lives in the camps harms Bangladesh.”

A grocery shop owner, 35, said his family of 11 and the families of his two employees were dependent on the store income. “The demolition of the marketplace destroyed my shop and so many like mine,” he said. “Now we’ve turned into beggars again.”

Bangladesh’s deputy refugee commissioner, Shamsud Douza, said the shops were demolished because they were “illegal.” A senior government official told the UN special rapporteur on Myanmar, “Livelihood opportunity is not the responsibility of Bangladesh.”

Many refugees said their attempts to continue operating their businesses from their shelters had also been shut down. “Since the demolition, authorities won’t allow us to run another business,” Mohammed Ali said. “They said it’s prohibited, and that we are not living in our own country, we are living in another country, and we cannot earn money in another territory.”

The nearly one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh lack recognized legal status, which puts them on precarious footing under domestic law and makes them vulnerable to rights violations. However, as a party to core international human rights treaties, Bangladesh is obligated to ensure everyone in its jurisdiction, including refugees, has access to fundamental rights, including freedom of movement, livelihoods, education, and health care, Human Rights Watch said.

Rohingya also described new arbitrary restrictions on movement within the camps in recent months, including threats, frequent curfews, and harassment at checkpoints. “Before, we used to move freely around the camps to visit friends and families,” Amir said. “But now we face a lot of questioning by the authorities whenever we’re outside our shelter.”

One refugee, 43, said that in the past, he had been able to travel freely within the camps, but in December, officers of the armed police battalion (APBn) stopped him at a checkpoint on his way to visit family in another camp, claiming he did not have the camp official’s permission. “This time, they made me wait at their checkpoint until my family members bribed the APBn officials,” he said. “Since then, I stopped going outside of my shelter.”

Another refugee, 22, said that majhis (Rohingya community leaders) told his block that camp officials had ordered Rohingya not to leave their shelters at night. In February, two police officers stopped him at a checkpoint in the late afternoon while he was returning to his shelter after visiting relatives. “One of them started slapping me, saying that I was lying,” he said. “They took me to the APBn police barrack in Camp 12 and kept me there overnight.” He was released the next day after paying a 30,000 BDT ($350) bribe.

The authorities began building fencing in the camps in 2019, ostensibly to ensure the refugees’ safety. Instead, the fencing denies them freedom of movement while placing them at serious risk during emergencies, such as fires, which has led to preventable deaths. Six fires have broken out in 2022 thus far, which Save the Children called “avoidable,” urging officials to create additional openings in the fencing.

New restrictions have also been placed on education, depriving Rohingya children of the opportunity to learn and build self-reliant futures. In December, Bangladesh authorities banned Rohingya-led community schools, affecting about 60,000 students.

Refugees and humanitarian groups fear the recent dire restrictions are part of the government’s efforts to coerce refugees to relocate to Bhasan Char or repatriate to Myanmar. Bangladesh authorities have already moved about 22,000 Rohingya to the remote, flood-prone island, where they face severe movement restrictions, food and medicine shortages, and abuses by security forces. Many have been transferred without full, informed consent, and have been prevented from returning to the mainland.

The Bangladesh government has also renewed efforts to repatriate the Rohingya, declaring its top priority “is immediate repatriation of the Rohingyas to their homeland Myanmar.” In January, Bangladesh officials held the first meeting of a new task force formed with Myanmar junta officials, announcing joint plans to “expeditiously complete the verification process.”

Two prior repatriation attempts failed, with Rohingya refugees unwilling to return due to the ongoing risk of persecution and abuse in Myanmar. In December, the special rapporteur on Myanmar reported that “conditions for the safe, sustainable, dignified return of the Rohingya to their homeland currently do not exist,” given the frequent atrocities by the Myanmar junta and ongoing crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution faced by the Rohingya.

Refoulement, the forcible return of refugees to places where their lives, physical integrity, or freedom would be threatened, occurs not only when the authorities directly expel refugees, but also when indirect pressure is so intense that it leads people to believe they have no option but to return to a country where they face a serious risk of harm.

The 2022 Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya humanitarian crisis, which is requesting US$875 million, is thus far unfunded. Donors, including the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, and Australia, should increase funding to meet the massive needs of the Rohingya refugee population while urging Bangladesh to reverse its restrictions on livelihoods, movement, and education, Human Rights Watch said.

“The US, UK, and other donors should help ensure that Rohingya refugees have access to education, employment, and other necessary tools for rebuilding their lives,” Ganguly said. “It’s critical for governments to work together to address these issues and show solidarity with the Rohingya in the face of the Myanmar junta’s mounting crimes.”

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