Bangladesh: Thousands of Rohingya Escape Refugee Camps in Search of Jobs

About 100 refugees are caught daily trying to sneak into cities for work, official says.

Rohingya refugees work at a fish farm in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Oct. 31, 2017.

Rohingya Farhim Urmin shivered as she faced a reporter at the door of her new home, a seaside hut miles from overcrowded refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.

The newcomer to Bangladesh seemed wary at first while answering questions. Little by little, she opened up about her experience of fleeing an explosion of violence in neighboring Myanmar and venturing away from the camps to get a job – which officially violates local rules for Rohingya refugees like herself.

“I recently started working as a housekeeper in a nearby hotel. They have promised me a salary of 4,000 taka (U.S. $48) a month,” Urmin, a 23-year-old mother of two toddlers, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

Her husband, too, has found work as a daily-wage laborer, earning about 200 taka ($2.40) a day when he finds work, she said.

The couple is among thousands of newly arrived Rohingya refugees who have given authorities the slip by leaving the refugee camps to search for work in other towns and cities to eke out a meager living, according to local officials.

Urmin and her husband are among more than 600,000 people who fled from Myanmar’s Rakhine state following an outbreak of violence in late August. The new arrivals joined more than 400,000 Rohingya refugees who had escaped earlier cycles of killings in Rakhine and are concentrated largely in camps along Bangladesh’s southeastern border with Myanmar.

Urmin’s family crossed into Bangladesh on foot last month following a fresh wave of reported pogroms against members of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority. The family pays a monthly rent of 1,000 taka ($12) for a single-room tin hut in Samiti Para, a section of Cox’s Bazar town.

“Some 7,000 Rohingya live in Samiti Para. Of them, about 4,000 are new arrivals. Most of them have found jobs,” the locality’s municipal councilor, Akhtar Kamal, told BenarNews, adding that many more had moved farther inland and found work in Chittagong and even as far away as Dhaka.

‘We have to be more humane’

The new wave of refugees crossed the frontier in the aftermath of a military offensive launched in Rakhine after an insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked police outposts on Aug. 25. The new refugee arrivals have been given shelter in about 15 camps situated about 30 km (18.6 miles) to 70 km (43.5 miles) from Cox’s Bazar.

While Buddhist-majority Myanmar does not recognize members of the Rohingya Muslim minority as citizens, referring to them pejoratively as “illegal Bengali immigrants,” government officials on the other side of the border refuse to classify them as refugees. Instead, Bangladeshi authorities consider them as “forcibly displaced Myanmar citizens.”

“[T]hey are not being recognized as refugees. They have just sought shelter here in Bangladesh,” Shah Kamal, Bangladesh’s secretary for disaster management and relief, told reporters in October.

A local security official said Rohingya refugees are not allowed to leave the camps or seek employment outside them.

“They are not citizens or permanent residents of Bangladesh. Legally, they are not allowed to work here,” Maj. Ruhul Amin of Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), told BenarNews.

“But we are aware that many of them have found odd jobs in bigger towns and cities. Whenever they are caught, we send them back to the camps,” he said, adding, “We don’t arrest them because we need to be sensitive toward the problems they are facing. We have to be more humane and understand that they are going through an extremely difficult situation.”

Avoiding checkpoints

Urmin and her family escaped Myanmar after the army set her entire village in northwestern Rakhine ablaze, she told Benar.

“Absolutely nothing was left of our village,” she said.

The family walked through forested hills for about 10 days before reaching Cox’s Bazar.

The Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia upazila (sub-district), where her family arrived on Sept. 6, was overflowing with refugees, she said.

“It was extremely chaotic and crowded. We stayed there for some days in an open shelter, but didn’t feel safe,” Urmin said of the largest of the refugee camps along the border.

Her family, along with some other new arrivals, then decided to make a run for Cox’s Bazar town, a popular beach resort, where, they were told, some Rohingya had settled and found work.

The 32-km (20-mile) narrow road leading to the town has several check points guarded by Bangladeshi army and the elite RAB, whose personnel stop each vehicle and check I.D. cards of all commuters to prevent Rohingya from leaving the camps.

“We didn’t come [to town] via the road. We walked overnight through the jungle that runs adjacent to it,” Urmin said.

Forces admit helplessness

Security officials conceded that it is difficult to keep the Rohingya confined to their designated camps.

“We are trying our best to ensure refugees don’t venture into the cities. But it is near impossible considering the sheer number of them that have entered the country over the last two months,” said Maj. Amin of the Rapid Action Battalion.

“Every day, we intercept about 100 refugees making attempts to get to cities. But some manage to slip through,” he said. The figure, Amin added, was “significantly higher in the initial days” of the crisis.

“They are desperate. No matter how many times we catch them and send them back to the camps, they keep trying to leave,” he said.

Urmin’s neighbor in Samita Para, Mohsana, 25, who arrived in Bangladesh about two months ago, said she left her village after her husband was “shot dead by Myanmar army soldiers” in front of her eyes. Late last month, she sneaked into Cox’s Bazar town from Ukhia’s Balukhali refugee camp with her three daughters.

“We hitched rides, getting off several times along the way and walking through the jungle to avoid check points,” she told BenarNews.

Just a day after reaching the Samiti Para area, Mohsana, who declined to reveal her last name, found work at a fish farm. The job fetches her about 3,500 taka ($42) a month.

“I remove scales and gut at least 300 fish daily. The fish are then laid out to dry before being packed in boxes and sent out. Most Rohingya living here do the same job,” she said.

“I stink but I don’t mind it. It is much better than life in the camps. Here, it is quieter, cleaner and right next to a beach where the kids can play without fear,” Mohsana said.

Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.