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Rohingya refugees test Bangladeshi welcome as prices rise & repatriation stalls

Since August, nearly 700,000 Rohingya have crossed from Myanmar’s Rakhine State into Bangladesh.

In September 2017, newly arrived Rohingya refugees from Myanmar walk through paddy fields and flooded land after they fled over the border into Cox’s Bazar district, Chittagong Division in Bangladesh. Picture: Unicef.

KUTUPALONG REFUGEE CAMP, Bangladesh – The first Rohingya refugees who arrived on Jorina Katun’s farmland in Bangladesh last year were worn out and traumatised after fleeing violence in neighboring Myanmar. They wept and begged to stay, and Katun, moved by their plight, said yes.

“I really regret that,” she said. “They said they would stay for only a month. They’re still here and more are coming.” Katun now has 25 Rohingya families living on a patch of land where she used to grow rice and vegetables.

Since August, nearly 700,000 Rohingya have crossed from Myanmar’s Rakhine State into Bangladesh. Makeshift camps housing the Rohingya sprawl across thousands of acres of what was once a government forest reserve, butting up against - and sometimes overwhelming - Bangladeshi homes and land. Jorina Katun lives on the edge of the largest such camp.

Officials and aid workers fear that the welcome is wearing thin, due to the unprecedented number of refugees and growing doubts over whether Myanmar will ever take them back.

Repatriation was due to begin in January under an agreement signed by Myanmar and Bangladesh. But the plan has stalled due to safety and logistical concerns, and meanwhile Rohingya continue to flee across the border.

“We’ve accommodated them, but for how long?” said Kazi Abdur Rahman, a deputy district administrator in Cox’s Bazar. “Our crop fields are destroyed. Our forests are destroyed...It’s a huge impact for the whole community.”

So far, local people have been remarkably tolerant, with many feeling duty-bound to help fellow Muslims they see as being oppressed because of their religion. There have only been a handful of anti-Rohingya protest, all small and peaceful.

But many also blame the Rohingya for driving up food prices and stealing jobs, and officials worry that the refugees bring with them an increased risk of disease, militant activity and drug trafficking.

Residents have been told to report any Rohingya seen outside the camps, said Rahman. “It’s for our security, so they can’t get up to any terrorist activity,” he said.

He said he had no evidence that the Rohingya were involved in crime, but noted they were poor, desperate and “very vulnerable to evil forces”.

THE CHEAPEST WORKER

Before the current crisis, Bangladesh was already home to 300,000 Rohingya refugees who had fled previous bouts of violence in Myanmar. Now, in Ukhia and Teknaf, two sub-districts near the Myanmar border, Rohingya outnumber local people by about two to one.

Residents of Ukhia and Teknaf were already among Bangladesh’s poorest and by some measures as deprived as the refugees, according to ACAPS, a Geneva-based think-tank which analyses humanitarian responses.

Seven in 10 families, both Bangladeshi and Rohingya, struggled to get enough to eat, ACAPS found.

Little of the land around Cox’s Bazar is suitable for farming, so Bangladeshis have to buy about 80% of their food in local markets, said ACAPS.

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