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As violence surges in Rohingya camps, victims have no path to justice

A new report by the aid group Human Rights Watch (HRW) details murders, kidnappings, extortion, sexual assault, and forced marriage inside the sprawling camps. But the people living there have nowhere to turn for justice or protection.

Kidnappings, extortions and killings on the rise in the Bangladeshi camps: Human Rights Watch report

A young boy, pictured from behind, on a hill overlooking a sprawling refugee camp full of trees and makeshift structures.

Bangladesh's Rohingya refugee camps have become rife with gangs and violence, but advocates say the people living there have nowhere to turn for justice or protection.

A new report by the advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) details murders, kidnappings, extortion, sexual assault, and forced marriage inside the sprawling camps.

The victims and their families say Bangladeshi authorities working in the camps have, at best, ignored their pleas for help, and at worst, put them in further danger.

"The situation in the camps right now is one where the Rohingya tell us that every night they hear gunshots and they wonder if this is their turn to die," Meenakshi Ganguly, HRW's deputy Asia director, told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

HRW says it documented 26 cases of violence against Rohingya through interviews with 45 refugees between January and April 2023, as well as supporting evidence including police and medical reports. Only three incidents led to arrests, and in one case, family members say the suspect was freed after paying police a bribe.

"Victims report facing layers of barriers to police, legal, and medical assistance, with the authorities failing to provide protection, improve security, or prosecute those responsible," reads the report, which CBC has not been able to independently verify.

The Bangladesh government did not respond to CBC's requests for comment directed to its foreign ministry or its high commission in Ottawa.

A not-so-temporary solution

The Rohingya are a long-persecuted, predominantly Muslim, ethnic minority group who, until a brutal military crackdown in 2017, primarily resided in the Buddhist-majority country of Myanmar.

It's been six years since hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled a campaign of violence, which the Myanmar military referred to as "clearance operations." Canada, several other countries — and many survivors — call it genocide.

Most ended up in neighbouring Bangladesh, which set up temporary camps for the sudden influx of refugees.

This, however, proved to be a lot less temporary than planned. Today, there are now an estimated one million people living in camps in Cox's Bazar or the isolated silt island of Bhasan Char.

A young girl in a crowd of people holds a sign that reads: "5 years. Full Stop."

Bangladesh has long maintained that the best way to help the Rohingya is to repatriate them to Myanmar. But HRW maintains it is not safe for them to return.

They are not permitted to work or receive formal education in Bangladesh. That policy, Ganguly says, leads to gang violence.

"We recognize that Bangladesh has taken on the role of a responsible government that has provided sanctuary to people at risk. But it cannot be one where the refugees are constantly being made to feel that they are unwelcome and that this is a temporary situation," Ganguly said.

"One of the outcomes has been that there has been recruitment of children into these gangs. That is an extremely alarming situation."

Bangladesh authorities say there are at least 11 known gangs operating in — and vying for control of — the camps. The biggest is Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).

Ganguly says Bangladeshi authorities often force community leaders, known as majhis, to identify ARSA members, sometimes even recruiting them to join patrols of the camp.

"As soon as that happens, they are targeted [by ARSA] ," Ganguly said.

According to the report, one woman whose husband was killed for collaborating with authorities told HRW: "My husband told me he was so confused about what to do. If the majhis didn't help the authorities, they became ARSA's collaborator. But when they went against ARSA, they became a collaborator of the authorities."

At least 16 majhis were killed in the first half of 2023, HRW said.

'I felt so helpless'

Kidnappings and extortion are also rampant in the camps, the report found.

One refugee quoted said: "I was blindfolded and my hands and legs were tied with a rope. I was given very little food and water. I was beaten and asked how much money my mother could pay. I felt so helpless."

A man kneels and picks through rubble. All around him are burnt trees, rubble and structures built from wooden sticks and tarps.

But sometimes the kidnappers aren't only looking for money, Ganguly said.

"We have had a number of cases where we have found that families have been blackmailed into agreeing to forced marriages because, you know, the father or the brother has been picked up, they are being held, and until they agree to marry their daughter to some gunman, they will not be released."

The report outlines the case of a 14-year-old girl forced to marry a 28-year-old gang member to save her brother and father.

"The girl reported that the man she was forced to marry subjects her to physical violence," the report reads.

No way out

Ganguly said those harmed have no one to turn to, except camp authorities, who decide whether to bring the matter to police.

"It's not possible for a refugee in Bangladesh to be able to go to a police station like a regular citizen and complain about threats, complain about rapes, and expect that the medical system will take care of people who have been harmed in any way," she said.

"These opportunities just simply don't exist."

According to the report, "refugees who did manage to register their case at a local police station said there was no follow-up, often because they could not cover the bribes and legal fees demanded."

Little girls smile brightly and jump rope. Behind them are makeshift structures.

HRW is calling on Bangladesh to work with the United Nations to establish a safety plan for the camps.

And Ganguly is calling on people around the world not to forget the plight of the Rohingya.

"When the refugees first came in 2017, the world reacted with great horror to their situation. But as other fires have emerged, even the donor community has forgotten the Rohingya to a large part," she said.

"If there is no rule of law, if there is no access to justice, this is a million people who are going to be left without any kind of remedy."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sheena Goodyear

Journalist

Sheena Goodyear is a web journalist with CBC Radio's As It Happens in Toronto. She is equally comfortable tackling complex and emotionally difficult stories that hold truth to power, or spinning quirky yarns about the weird and wonderful things people get up to all over the world. She has a particular passion for highlighting stories from LGBTQ communities. Originally from Newfoundland and Labrador, her work has appeared on CBC News, Sun Media, the Globe & Mail, the Toronto Star, VICE News and more. You can reach her at sheena.goodyear@cbc.ca

    Interview produced by Morgan Passi

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