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Regional risks are brewing in Bangladesh's Rohingya camps

Left unchecked, the refugee crisis could could fan terrorism and social unrest

Rohingya refugees from Myanmar get off a boat after crossing into Bangladesh through the Bay of Bengal on Sept. 11.   © Reuters

COX'S BAZAR, Bangladesh The typical morning in Cox's Bazar might be described as tranquil. Boys and girls gather to peel the shells off shrimp brought in by small fishing boats. Tourists sit in quiet reflection on the beach, one of the world's longest. Yet this southeastern corner of Bangladesh finds itself at the center of a humanitarian emergency, and on Sept. 28 it was the scene of staggering horror.

Dozens of bodies, many of them children, washed ashore. They were all Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution south of the border, in Myanmar's Rakhine State. A boat carrying about 80 refugees had capsized in vicious wind and waves. The International Organization for Migration later said 23 died and 40 were missing.

The tragedy is a microcosm of a still-unfolding refugee crisis -- a crisis that raises geopolitical risks for Asia as a whole, including terrorism and social unrest.

The exodus of Myanmar's Muslim minority began in late August. In only a month, the number of refugees topped half a million, prompting the Bangladeshi government and international aid organizations to launch unprecedented relief operations. In a refugee camp in Kutupalong, 50km south of Cox's Bazar, Rohingya offer eyewitness accounts of the violence they left behind.

"It was Sept. 1, my husband was killed," said Rasheda Begum, a 35-year-old mother of eight who fled the Rakhine village of Dumbai. "First, he was shot by a military man from close range beside our house. He fell to the ground. Then I saw another military man move onto him and cut his neck."

Basar, a 30-year-old father of three who has taken shelter in a nearby elementary school, said Myanmar's military torched all of the roughly 3,500 homes in his village, Kawar Bil, on Sept. 7.

Accounts like these add up to "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing," according to Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights.

They also directly contradict the televised address Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's de facto leader, gave on Sept. 19 in response to a chorus of international condemnation. The Nobel peace laureate said her country's forces had "been instructed to adhere strictly to the code of conduct in carrying out security operations, exercise all due restraint and to take full measures to avoid collateral damage and the harming of innocent civilians."

The crisis was touched off when the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a Rohingya militant group, attacked Myanmar security outposts on Aug. 25. In response, the military cracked down not only on the militants but on civilians as well. "At least 500,000 civilians have fled their homes and sought safety in Bangladesh," U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Sept. 28, adding, "At least 176 of 471 Muslim villages in northern Rakhine have been totally abandoned."

Rohingya refugees reach for food in the Cox's Bazar district (Photo by Yuji Kuronuma)

"WHAT CAN WE DO?" Bangladesh is reeling from the sheer scale of the influx.

"It is not just 'not easy,' but it is impossible" to accommodate so many people, Selin Sheikh, an assistant commissioner and executive magistrate of the Cox's Bazar district, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "Will this number go up to 600,000, 700,000 soon? What can we do?"

Shahriar Alam, Bangladesh's junior state minister of foreign affairs, said in an interview that the situation is "absolutely unprecedented, because so many people arrived in such a [short] span of time."

To put the numbers in context: The Vietnamese "boat people" who fled after the fall of Saigon totaled 110,000 from 1975 to 1978. The number of Syrian refugees who poured into the European Union's 28 member states over the course of last year came to 360,000.

Bangladesh is desperate to stem the flow. The Cox's Bazar district shares a land and river border with Myanmar, with half of the district forming a peninsula. Bangladeshi border patrol is stopping refugees around the northern half of the peninsula. But around Teknaf, at the peninsula's edge, the refugees continue to cross to Bangladesh by boat.

As of August, 1.1 million Rohingya were living in Rakhine. Some U.N. officials expect the number of refugees to reach 1 million by the end of the year.

A further influx would exacerbate logistical problems and deepen security fears.

Regarding food and water supplies for the refugees, Sheikh said the Bangladeshi government is "able to continue to help" as long as the World Food Program and other international bodies keep offering assistance. If more refugees arrive, however, he said it will become "impossible to maintain law and order, or security in the district."

Sheikh said some refugees "try doing business with yaba, a type of drug." One U.N. staffer also noted concerns about sexual abuse and human trafficking. "We met a refugee lady in a camp who was raped twice in the past few weeks: first by the military in Rakhine after Aug. 25, and then by a refugee leader in her camp recently."

TERRORIST MAGNET? What the Bangladeshi government fears most is the prospect of armed Rohingya insurgents slipping into the camps. Shortly after the inflow began, border patrol apprehended two refugees carrying guns. Sheikh said that while it may be possible to find solutions to short supplies of food, water, medicine and shelter, "We cannot [prevent] terrorist activity if the scale of refugees continues to grow."

Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a televised address in Naypyitaw on Sept. 19. (Photo by Shinya Sawai)

Malaysia and Indonesia -- Muslim-majority countries that have blasted Myanmar over its treatment of their coreligionists -- seem well-aware of the terrorism risk. Media reports say Malaysia, which has accepted 100,000 Rohingya migrants since 2015, is willing to take in more but will tighten screening.

"We will accept these refugees on humanitarian grounds, but the government is being very cautious about this," Nur Jazlan Mohamed, Malaysia's deputy home minister, said in early September. "There is an emerging militant group rising from the catastrophe in Myanmar, and we do not want such individuals or their sympathizers to slip into Malaysia."

Indonesian President Joko Widodo in mid-September dispatched Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi to Bangladesh, reportedly to extend humanitarian aid and offer to accept 1,000 refugees -- a number that, on its own, would hardly lighten the burden on Bangladesh.

"There is a serious risk that events in Rakhine State draw in terrorist fighters from elsewhere in the region/world, as has occurred in Mindanao in the Philippines, where they have joined and further inflamed a domestic insurgency," Peter Mumford, Southeast Asia expert at the Eurasia Group, wrote in a recent report.

Bangladesh is already trying to improve domestic security after a deadly terrorist attack in Dhaka in July 2016. If the refugee crisis continues to spiral out of control, it could destabilize the eastern part of the country, possibly creating a breeding ground for terrorist groups beyond the government's reach -- much like today's Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at IHS Markit, suggested that Bangladesh's neighbors could accept "some thousands of refugees in each country, rather than hundreds of thousands." Yet members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the broader international community, seem unwilling to do much more than rebuke Myanmar.

A Rohingya refugee camp in the Cox's Bazar district of Bangladesh (Photo by Yuji Kuronuma)

Terrorism is only part of the equation. The huge number of refugees threatens to fuel social unrest in Bangladesh -- and any other countries that eventually open their doors.

Bangladesh this year is grappling with a poor rice crop that sent prices surging. According to Sheikh, the jobless rate in the country is as high as 40%, and some citizens face greater hardship than the refugees in the camps.

Not to be overlooked are the roughly 400,000 Rohingya refugees who previously trickled into the country, starting in the 1990s. Resentment is simmering over these people taking construction and other jobs for lower wages than typical Bangladeshi workers.

There are worrying parallels with Europe, where the influx of Syrian refugees has fanned nationalist sentiment and driven a resurgence of far-right political parties.

South and Southeast Asia, with their mosaics of religions and ethnicities, have been forging ahead with economic integration -- as if to follow in Europe's footsteps. But it is not difficult to imagine the Rohingya crisis and its side effects prompting societies to turn inward.

PASSING THE BUCK From the 1970s to 1990s, the U.S. took the initiative in solving the Vietnamese and Laotian refugee problem, with various countries taking in tens or even hundreds of thousands. This time, however, no one has stepped up to play the leading role. This buck-passing creates real dangers for Asia, beyond the humanitarian tragedy itself.

Alam, the Bangladeshi junior foreign minister, suggested that the real failure was not preventing a mass exodus of people in the first place.

"The U.N. and ASEAN should have intervened immediately [when international organizations were thrown out of Rakhine last year]," he said. "I think the lesson learned here is that everyone must raise their voices before it's too late."

With a resigned look, he added, "In this case, it's too late."

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