Since the latest influx of Rohingya refugees began in August 2017, more than 140 NGOs and aid agencies have launched operations in Cox’s Bazar, with thousands of aid workers in tow.
Many of those arriving to help are Bangladeshi nationals, coming from other parts of the country solely to deliver relief to the 900,000 Rohingya living in camps across the district.
A lack of resources, confusing government policies and the monsoon season have complicated the relief effort, but the security environment in the area remains one of the most frustrating obstacles.
Just north of the border with Myanmar, Cox’s Bazar is part of an established drug smuggling route. Criminal gangs import yaba pills, made of cheap methamphetamine mixed with caffeine and other stimulants, from Myanmar’s Shan state into distribution channels spanning Bangladesh, Nepal and India.
The fresh influx of refugees has provided drug traffickers with the opportunity to expand their imports, either by using the Rohingya as mules or by posing as refugees themselves.
The inflow of aid workers and international organisations has created further opportunity for drug traffickers; some have even been discovered sticking the logos of NGOs operating in the area to the sides of their vehicles, allowing them to move unimpeded through the region. Of greater concern is the fact that random stop-and-search checks have revealed some of the drivers employed by NGOs and aid agencies have themselves been recruited into the trade.
Rohingya women and children are being coerced into South Asia’s human trafficking networks. Some are being entrapped as forced labour, while others are sold into the sex trade in Thailand and Malaysia, or more locally in Dhaka and Delhi. Those that go willingly, paying human traffickers for transit to more prosperous parts of Asia, are forced into overcrowded boats and sometimes extorted to death, quite literally. In 2015, mass graves filled with Rohingya were unearthed in Malaysia and Thailand. These networks of traffickers are transnational and, although the central figures in Cox’s Bazar are Bangladeshi gang leaders, evidence has surfaced implicating police officers, Myanmar soldiers and local businessmen.
The reach of human trafficking gangs is one of the reasons so few organisations in Cox’s Bazar are willing to challenge the practice, for fear their staff will be targeted in violent reprisals. Even aid organisations that are delivering protection programmes are almost exclusively limiting their operational scope to sensitising the Rohingya to the risks of trafficking, through increasing awareness of the outcomes of trafficking. With most organisations too threatened to attempt to disrupt these networks directly, the practice continues.
In every organisation in Cox’s Bazar, the personnel responsible for purchasing services from local vendors are among those identified as most at risk.
Local businessmen routinely harass, intimidate, and even occasionally assault those responsible for awarding the lucrative contracts aid organisations are allocating to new and inexperienced suppliers. The vast majority of these businesses did not exist when the 2017 influx began but have sprang up since to meet the demand for goods and services, with many of them routinely under-delivering, or some even point-blank not delivering at all. Most commonly, connections to local politicians or government officials are used as leverage, with threatening phone calls almost routine for those involved in the procurement process.
Yet, of all the issues complicating the security environment, police corruption in Cox’s Bazar is perhaps the most damaging to the safety of those working in the district. The solicitation of bribes or “facilitation payments” is routine, and NGO workers are regularly prevented from moving cargo between warehouses and camp areas by officers seeking bribes. If aid workers refuse to comply, on ethical grounds or on the basis of their organisation’s anti-corruption policy, the police will refuse to allow them to pass, sending them and their supplies in the opposite direction of the camps.
In other instances, aid workers who attempted to file police reports in the aftermath of a theft have been turned away outright. More than one described their experience of trying to file a report at the Teknaf station, where they were told, in no uncertain terms, the report would not be made and their case would not be investigated. The unspoken caveat, of course, being “unless a payment is made”.
As the Rohingya crisis extends into its second year, with no realistic diplomatic resolution in sight, it is hard to see the security situation on the ground improving. In fact, as the host community in Cox’s Bazar becomes increasingly frustrated, and the Rohingya presence more established, it is likely the security environment will deteriorate further. However, among the uncertainty, one thing is clear: organisations in Cox’s Bazar that are not taking the security of their personnel seriously, jeopardise their entire relief effort.