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Long-Persecuted Rohingya Find Refuge, But Not Acceptance, In Bangladesh

Fishing boats sit in the sunset on the beach in Teknaf in southern Bangladesh. Billed as the longest beach in the world, the Bangladeshi government has plans to turn the area into a tourist destination in hopes of bringing in badly needed jobs and investment. Michael Sullivan for NPR

By Michael Sullivan and Ashley Westerman
April 14, 2017

The beautiful beaches of Teknaf, along the Bay of Bengal in southern Bangladesh, are almost completely untouched by humans. Wide, with fine-grained brown and gray sand, the shore looks as if it stretches along the sea forever. In fact, the Bangladeshi government bills it as the world's longest beach.

So naturally, developers are lining up to build there and have literally staked out their claims on signs along the road, Marine Drive. When the highway is finished, it will link this place to Cox's Bazar some 50 miles to the north.

"We look for other tourists from all over the world. We have a goal to attract them," says Anwar Ul Islam, who heads the Cox's Bazar Development Authority.

One of the first goals is to turn the domestic Cox's Bazar Airport into an international airport. That work, he says, should be finished in two more years.

When it's done, he is confident foreign tourists will come and that Cox's Bazar will give Thailand and the Philippines a run for their money — bringing badly needed jobs and investment to a country of more than 150 million people that doesn't have enough of either.

Tourists gather on the beach in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh's current beach destination. Michael Sullivan for NPR

But there's a potential problem with that plan: hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees live in that area.

Since the 1970s, an estimated 500,000 of the Muslim minority group have fled to Bangladesh from neighboring Buddhist-majority Myanmar in several waves. In the last six months, some 70,000 Rohingya have arrived after the Myanmar military's latest crackdown against them. Refugees fleeing the country describe a brutal military campaign of murder, arson and mass rape against the long-persecuted minority.

Many of these refugees live unofficially in squatter camps near Cox's Bazar within a few miles of the beach.

That's not a big selling point for a go-to tourist destination, and Ul Islam knows it.

"It is an issue," he says. "The government has decided if we can relocate these Rohingya from Cox's Bazar ... to other places, it will be better."

Until then, the Rohingya are stuck; they're not allowed to move or work — not legally, at least.

At a brick factory a short drive from Cox's Bazar, the manager says that he hires Rohingya for the nastiest jobs: hauling the coal to bake the bricks.

"We don't recruit them. If they come looking for work, and we need people, we give them a job," he says.

He has even given one Rohingya employee a permanent job as a mechanic to keep the ovens cooking. Hassan — NPR is only using his first name because he is not supposed to be working — is 30 years old and fled Myanmar two years ago. This job, he says, is the best he's had in Bangladesh.

"The last job I had, the boss tried to cheat me and didn't give me my full salary," Hassan says. "He told me if I complained, he'd have someone hurt me. So I left and came here."

Hassan says he sends about half the $100 a month he earns back to his family still living in Myanmar. But many locals think that he, as a refugee, shouldn't have a job at all.

Workers at a brick factory toil through sweltering heat to shape, dry and bake bricks. The work is seasonal and labor-intensive. The manager says if he has openings, he'll give a job to anyone willing to do the work. Michael Sullivan for NPR

"We compete for the same jobs," says Habibur Rahaman, an 18-year-old Bangladeshi working at a construction site south of Cox's Bazar. "The more of them that come, the less opportunities we have to work and to make money."

He says employers can pay Rohingya half what Bangladeshis will accept, since they're working without authorization and have to take what they can get.

Rahaman's uncle Alauddin says he understands the Rohingya's problems across the border in Myanmar, but worries more about his own people.

"Our country is already poor. We don't need any more Rohingya coming here and making it worse," he says. "Not all Rohingya are bad, some are good. But they still take our jobs and some are involved in the illegal drugs trade, too."

Habibur Rahaman (left) and Alauddin are Bangladeshi construction workers who worry that the influx of Rohingya refugees will make it harder to find a job. They say Rohingya are willing to work for half the wages that Bangladeshis get. Michael Sullivan for NPR

There are other concerns. Some analysts worry that a new Rohingya insurgent group — the one blamed for the October and November attacks that prompted the Myanmar military's brutal crackdown — could start recruiting in the camps in southern Bangladesh and possibly use them as staging areas for attacks against the military in Myanmar.

If that happens, it could prompt another furious response from the military and potentially another wave of refugees.

Now, the government has a plan to relocate the Rohingya refugees to a remote island call Thengar Char, which lies some three hours away from the mainland. Local officials say parts of the island are underwater much of the year. The plan has been kicking around for a while, but in January, after the latest influx of refugees, the government said it was moving forward with the idea.

That decision alarmed the international aid community. It also caused fear among the Rohingya, says Abul Kashem, a Bangladeshi human rights activist who runs the NGO Help Cox's Bazar.

"Who would want to be sent to an island where the water swells up and people cannot live? None of them want to go to the island of Thengar Char," Kashem says.

Not Mohammad Ismail, a refugee who's been staying at one of the informal camps since February after fleeing Myanmar just before the new year.

"We feel safe here. We have already been tortured enough," he says. "We are already refugees. We don't want to move again. We will not go to Thengar Char."

Ismail says they would rather go back to Myanmar and face the military than go to the island.

Kashem hopes it doesn't come to that and that the plan is quietly scrapped — some humanitarian workers on the ground believe that's what will happen eventually.

But Kashem says he understands his people's growing unease with the number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. He says he also understands their complaints about competition for scarce resources. But he's more sympathetic to the plight of the Rohingya.

"They neither get support in their country, nor can they feel at home here in this country," he says. "They are really vulnerable. They are deprived of all their rights. Of education, country, religion and language. They are deprived of everything."

The Rohingya have no good options, he says. They can either stay here in squalid camps, barely surviving, or risk returning home to Myanmar and possible retribution from the Myanmar military. Not many have chosen the latter — which is why the number of Rohingya in Bangladesh just keeps growing.

With additional reporting by Bangladeshi journalist Muktadir Rashid.

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