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Forced Relocation of Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh

Alessandro Gagaridis, Bakhit Ikranbekov, Elizabeth Fisher, Mark Christian Soo

PACOM Team

January 04, 2021


Kutupalong Refugee Camp[1]


The Rohingyas are a Muslim ethnic group with a longstanding presence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. While they represent a minority in Myanmar as a whole, they account for most of Rakhine’s population. Over the years, they have faced violence and violation of their human rights in Myanmar, especially in 1978, 1991-92, and 2016. The latest escalation of violence started on August 25, 2017, resulting in the largest humanitarian crisis for Rohingyas and forcibly displacing around a million people from their homes. Most of them took refuge in Cox’s Bazar, southern Bangladesh.[2] The camp today is the world’s largest and most crowded, hosting several hundred thousand people in an area of barely 13 square kilometers.[3] The migration of such a large number of people to Bangladesh created its own issues between the local population and Rohingyas. Neither Myanmar nor Bangladesh recognizes or provide Rohingyas permanent residency or citizenship rights, which results in limited access to basic needs and human rights violations.[4]Recently, Bangladeshi authorities decided to relocate Rohingyas to the remote Bhasan Char island that is believed to be not safe for livelihood. This may further deteriorate conditions for Rohingyas, leading to unpredictable consequences in terms of radicalization, human rights, and humanitarian issues in the future.


The forced relocation of Rohingyas to refugee camps adds the element of isolation, creating a breeding ground for terrorists. For example, some members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), known as Harakah al-Yaqin prior to 2016 and headed by emigré Rohingyas from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, were recruited prior to entering the camps and received training from the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) on basic military skills and weapons tactics. However, the Bangladeshi government has denied their presence in the refugee camps.[5] ARSA members residing in the camps are known to impose strict rules regarding curfews and appropriate clothing choices for women. There are also some reports of kidnapping for ransom. The appeal of having some power in a desperate situation such as being forcefully relocated to the camps, combined with the desire for more recognition regionally by Rohingya, only strengthens the argument that terrorist recruitment within the refugee community will continue to rise and pose a risk.


As Rohingyas continue to suffer from discrimination and persecution while being forced to relocate, terrorists and other hostile groups see their plight as an opportunity to expand their activities in Southeast Asia. The risk that violence on Muslims in Myanmar may foster Islamist-inspired violence and extremism was raised as far back as 2013.[6] The first known evidence in response to the Rohingya crisis came from the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) in Indonesia when they issued a statement for any jihadists willing to fight for the Rohingya cause to head to the region.[7] At the same time, the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda (AQ) also prompted their members to join the battle and carry out attacks against Myanmar.[8] Reports from an Indian newspaper also indicate that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was indirectly training about 40 Rohingya terrorists in the Cox Bazar camp by providing funding (via accounts in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia) to a Bangladeshi extremist group named Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen of Bangladesh (JMB).[9] Once trained, the terrorists would enter India across the border with Bangladesh, which is seen as an alternative to the traditional Kashmiri route, now less viable due to stricter controls. An expert from the Brussels-based think tank South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF) confirmed the credibility of this threat, stressing Pakistan’s history of support to terrorism and how the living conditions of Rohingyas leave them particularly exposed to jihadi propaganda. However, as noted by a Bangladeshi security expert, these allegations might also be an Indian attempt to discredit Pakistan.[10] In November 2020, IS announced the establishment of a Myanmar-based Islamist group called Katibah al-Mahdi fi Bilad al-Arakan (Brigade of al-Mahdi in the Arakan State).[11] This move indicates that IS is willing to use the persecution of Rohingyas to justify jihad against the Myanmar government. The group’s establishment can bring more conflict and breakdown of interfaith relations between Muslim and non-Muslims in Myanmar and in Southeast Asia, especially if people are already biased against the former due to views based on Islamophobia and faith-based nationalism. This would further destabilize the region, and may in turn be exploited by the government of Myanmar to legitimize its crackdown on Rohingyas. Moreover, other jihadi groups could follow the IS example and take advantage of the Rohingya’s situation for propaganda purposes and for expanding their operations in the area.


External forces are not the only ones involved with Rohingyas. ARSA, the local militant group, made headlines for coordinating a joint attack on the Border Guard Police (BGP) and a Myanmar Army base in Rakhine state on August 25, 2017.[12] There are also indications that ARSA was responsible for slaughtering about 100 Hindu villagers and kidnapping others in the same period.[13] The group had previously uploaded a video online with a recorded statement made by its commander, Ata Ullah. He declared that ARSA is only fighting against Naypyidaw to preserve Rohingyas’ rights and he denied any connection to foreign jihadist groups in their fight.[14] The group has also abandoned its Arabic name to better reflect its stand.[15] However, ARSA’s existence continues to be cited by Myanmar’s authorities to justify the crackdown on the Rohingya populace that remains in the country.[16] The calls for a jihad against Myanmar is very serious since it can start another long conflict in Southeast Asia. It can also potentially put the country at risk as another target for Islamist terrorism. Such an event will result in more Rohingyas either being forced to move or answer the call to fight by joining the ranks of ARSA or those of IS- and AQ-affiliated groups. Moreover, the participation of Rohingya members in terrorist activities would reinforce the perception that the entire population is a threat, thus almost certainly resulting in more intercommunitarian violence.


A conflict in the region, especially if it takes a transnational dimension, which is likely could also result in other powers being involved. This is especially the case for Pakistan, India, and China. The former may support ARSA and Islamist groups to infiltrate India, something that it is possibly already trying to do. This may prompt New Delhi to intervene in an attempt to stabilize the area and disrupt the ties between ARSA and terrorist groups operating on its territory. As a result, Bangladesh and north-western Myanmar may become another ‘front’ in the India-Pakistan conflict. On its part, China is not likely to intervene in Bangladesh but could take a more active role in Myanmar if ARSA and/or other groups threatened the success of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, itself part of the broader ‘One Belt, One Road’ project which holds strategic importance for the PRC. Even though it remains a remote scenario, this would in turn raise concerns in India, which is already worried about China’s activities in its neighborhood; and other powers including the US would take it as another sign of China’s growing assertiveness. Nevertheless, the US would hardly take an active role in the conflict. First, it has no major interest in Myanmar; second, while backing the Rohingya insurgents would be a possible choice in the optic of countering China, it would also bear the risk of helping jihadi extremists. This would contradict America’s foreign policy and harm its credibility in the eyes of regional powers, notably India. Therefore, Washington would probably limit itself to condemning China, expressing sympathy for the Rohingyas, and calling for a peaceful resolution of the conflict; but in practice, it would opt for a neutral stance.


Criminal activities are another risk affecting Rohingyas, especially those in Bangladeshi refugee camps. In October 2020, clashes among rival groups in Cox’s Bazar camp resulted in the death of eight, the arrest of twelve, and the relocation of thousands more. The infighting seems the result of a crime war between the gang of a local drug trafficker known as “Munna” and ARSA, which denies being responsible for the event. The two groups are fighting over the control of the drug trade between Myanmar and Bangladesh.[17] This adds further strain on Rohingyas, making them keener to resort to crime and terrorism themselves in order to survive. This would allow terrorists to both finance their activities through illicit traffic and to use the camps as hideouts for their members.


Cultural factors also play a role in the risk of radicalization among Rohingyas. Most members follow a conservative version of Islam, and even though the large majority rejects violent means, the protracted harsh treatment they have experienced lead some, notably among the youth, towards radical views.[18] Similarly, amid a generally peaceful rise of civil society movements in the camps advocating for justice over the persecution suffered in Myanmar, conservative religious groups have also emerged. This resulted in violent acts in camps, such as kidnappings, irruptions, and threats on women who did not respect conservative Muslim habits. Reports indicate that members of ARSA have favored ultra-orthodox religious norms; in spite of the group’s official stance that it only fights for Rohingya rights without specific religious goals.[19] The general preference for religious conservatism, while not synonymous with radicalization per se, when combined with socio-economic frustration increases the risk that some may opt for extremist activities.


Humanitarian and sanitary conditions also play a role in making Rohingyas in refugee camps more vulnerable to radicalization. As of September 2019, Rohingyas have no formal refugee status since Bangladesh has not signed international treaties on the recognition of international refugees. Access to telecommunications and schooling is severely limited, while human trafficking activities (especially those involving women and children) occur in these camps sometimes with the complicity of corrupt law enforcement officials. Living conditions are poor and Bashan Char island was deemed too vulnerable to flooding. The lack of economic opportunities and obstacles in finding a solution to the refugee crisis complicate the situation.[20] The COVID-19 pandemic has added further stress on Rohingya refugees. This is primarily due to the fact that NGOs who delivered food to camps were forced to interrupt or severely reduce their aid. A virus outbreak in the camps, where the population density is very high and sanitary conditions poor, would have serious humanitarian consequences.[21] All of these conditions not only deteriorate the living conditions of Rohingya refugees in the camps but also fuels discontent thus creating dangerous social, economic, and psychological conditions that would increase the risk of radicalization among Rohingyas in the camps and from supportive immigrant communities abroad.


The hardships Rohingyas face in Myanmar and Bangladesh have made them vulnerable to be potentially radicalized, either by ARSA or by foreign Islamist forces. The presence of Katibah al-Mahdi fi Bilad al-Arakan, a new Islamist group based in Myanmar, would complicate religious tensions in Myanmar and the rest of Southeast Asia. The living conditions they face at the various refugee camps have also made them vulnerable to criminals and to potential COVID-19 outbreaks among the refugees. All this can force Rohingyas living in these camps to resort to criminality and/or terrorism just to get by with the lack of economic opportunities and with reduced assistance from humanitarian NGOs resulting from limited access to the camps. The presence of radicalized individuals among Rohingyas in refugee camps would further harm the image of the community as a whole, likely leading to further persecutions against them. The Bangladeshi and Myanmar governments have not acted to help Rohingyas out of their problem. Instead, Rohingyas still living in Myanmar are under constant fear of a military crackdown while Rohingyas in Bangladesh are made to relocate from the mainland to Bashan Char, which has been judged to be unsuitable for human habitation. It is likely that Bangladesh will continue minimizing its responsibility for Rohingyas, relocating even more people and creating more refugee camps as Bhasan Char island.


Government officials and NGOs operating in the region should monitor the situation to remain aware of the forced relocation of Rohingyas in Bangladesh and possibly take appropriate action to prevent and counter-radicalization via education, training, and economic development programs. We advise NGOs to request more access to the people in the camps, especially those on Bhasan Char island, to have more accurate information regarding their conditions and attempt to improve their situation. They should continue to raise the alarm about the environment Rohingyas are facing in the camps, as the stressors from multiple factors increase the risk for declining mental and physical health that combined with the lack of opportunity pushes refugees towards searching for a way out, potentially resulting in a bleaker position or radicalization. NGOs should advocate for the improvement of the conditions for Rohingyas and encourage their relocation to more habitable areas in Bangladesh and Myanmar where they can receive treatment compliant with human rights principles. They should also develop and implement projects to materially improve their living conditions, for instance by delivering food, psycho-physical healthcare, education, professional training, etc. At the same time, security forces should gather intelligence on extremist activity inside the camps, perform surveillance on suspicious religious leaders and radicalized individuals, and provide more patrolling to prevent known extremists from entering the camps. Intelligence sharing and cooperation among law enforcement authorities both at the state and international level will be essential in this sense.


The PACOM team will continue to monitor the situation of Rohingyas in Bangladesh and its impact in the region, specifically in regards to terrorist threats, increased insurgency, and further inter-communitarian division in the area. We will keep track of the activity of ARSA and other groups in the camps to determine the potential spread of extremist ideology; and we will also observe Bangladeshi policies to move the refugees to inhabitable locations or, on the contrary, to improve their living conditions. Myanmar has recently shown movement in their willingness to repatriate Rohingyas, but there is still doubt about how that would happen, what environment they would face, and within what timeline. The ongoing situation Rohingyas are facing is concerning for multiple reasons and the forced relocation to island camps will likely add further stress on refugees. As such, it is expected that the situation will not improve soon and that inter-ethnic tension will increase. CTG stands ready to provide support and analysis for the public sector and NGOs interested in the forced relocation. Please contact us at any time for further information and assistance.

________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]Kutupalong Refugee Camp” by John Owens, licensed under Public Domain

[2] THE ROHINGYA CRISIS, EXPLAINED: 5 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW, Concern Worldwide US, January 2021, https://www.concernusa.org/story/rohingya-crisis-explained/

[3] Three years after exodus, Rohingya refugees ‘more vulnerable than ever’, UN News, August 2020, https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/08/1070962

[4] THE ROHINGYA CRISIS, EXPLAINED: 5 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW, Concern Worldwide US, January 2021, https://www.concernusa.org/story/rohingya-crisis-explained/

[5] Rohingya militants active in Bangladeshi refugee camps, Deutsche Welle (DW), September 2019, https://www.dw.com/en/rohingya-militants-active-in-bangladeshi-refugee-camps/a-50490888

[6] Anti-Muslim Attacks in Myanmar Threaten Uptick in Regional Violence and Islamist Activism, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point - CTC Sentinel, July 2013, https://data2.unhcr.org/en/documents/download/44223

[7] Diverse and Enduring Terrorist Threat, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, September 2017, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/319930936_Exploitation_of_the_Rohingya_Crisis_by_Jihadist_Groups_Implications_for_Bangladesh's_Internal_Security

[8] ISIS, Al-Qaeda drawn to crisis in Rakhine state, The Strait Times, September 2017, https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/isis-al-qaeda-drawn-to-crisis-in-rakhine-state

[9] Genocide, history and radicalization of the Rohingya: A threat to moderate politics in Bangladesh, LiCAS.news, June 2020, https://spotlight.licas.news/genocide--history-and-radicalization-of-the-rohingya--a-threat-to-moderate-politics-in-bangladesh/index.html

[10] Is Pakistani intelligence radicalizing Rohingya refugees?, Deutsche Welle, February 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/is-pakistani-intelligence-radicalizing-rohingya-refugees/a-52364548

[11] IS Entry into Rakhine Conflict: Urgency in Nation-Building, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, January 2021, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/rsis-publication/icpvtr/is-entry-into-rakhine-conflict-urgency-in-nation-building/#.YAbgBhbmiUm

[12] Violence and mortality in the Northern Rakhine State of Myanmar, 2017: results of a quantitative survey of surviving community leaders in Bangladesh, The Lancet, March 2019, https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196(19)30037-3/fulltext

[13] Myanmar: New evidence reveals Rohingya armed group massacred scores in Rakhine State, Amnesty International, May 2018, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/05/myanmar-new-evidence-reveals-rohingya-armed-group-massacred-scores-in-rakhine-state/

[14] Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase, The International Crisis Group, December 2017, https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-east-asia/myanmar/292-myanmars-rohingya-crisis-enters-dangerous-new-phase

[15] IS Entry into Rakhine Conflict: Urgency in Nation-Building, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, January 2021, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/rsis-publication/icpvtr/is-entry-into-rakhine-conflict-urgency-in-nation-building/#.YAbgBhbmiUm

[16] Genocide, history and radicalization of the Rohingya: A threat to moderate politics in Bangladesh, LiCAS.news, June 2020, https://spotlight.licas.news/genocide--history-and-radicalization-of-the-rohingya--a-threat-to-moderate-politics-in-bangladesh/index.html

[17] Gang war erupts in Rohingya refugee camps, at least eight killed, thousands flee, Reuters, October 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-bangladesh-rohingya/gang-war-erupts-in-rohingya-refugee-camps-at-least-eight-killed-thousands-flee-idUSKBN26T1Z1

[18] Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, International Crisis Group, December 2016, https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-east-asia/myanmar/283-myanmar-new-muslim-insurgency-rakhine-state

[19] In Rohingya camps, a political awakening faces a backlash, Reuters, April 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-rohingya-politics-insight/in-rohingya-camps-a-political-awakening-faces-a-backlash-idUSKCN1S000D

[20] Assessing the Treatment of Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh, Atlantic Council South Asia Center, September 2019, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Assessing-the-Treatment-of-Rohingya-Refugees-in-Bangladesh_pdf.pdf

[21] Three years after exodus, Rohingya refugees ‘more vulnerable than ever’, UN News, August 2020, https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/08/1070962

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