Authorities fence in Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh

Fences are being built in the Kutupalong camp. (Photo: Ro Sawyeddollah)
Fences are being built in the Kutupalong camp. (Photo: Ro Sawyeddollah)

Officials have started building fences around the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. In early December, our Observers witnessed the installation of barbed wire fences, which would confine camp residents and cut them off from the rest of the world.

Bangladesh’s Chief of Army Staff General Aziz Ahmed made an announcement on 24 November that fences would be built around the camps that are home to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees. This followed a recommendation made by parliament in September that a “security fence” should be built to prevent anyone from leaving the camps or entering them.

In 2017, more than 740,000 people from the Rohingya Muslim minority fled persecution and violence at the hands of the national army in Buddhist-majority Myanmar and ended up in refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh. Since 2018, the United Nations has used the word “genocide” to refer to the Myanmar government’s campaign of systematic violence towards the Rohingya. The UN estimates that the Myanmar government is responsible for the deaths of at least 10,000 people.

Rohingya refugees ended up in several refugee camps located in the district of Cox’s Bazar, which is on a narrow strip of land between the gulf of Bengal and Myanmar. The immense and sprawling Kutupalong refugee camp is home to an estimated 734,000 refugees, out of 900,000 Rohingya currently living in Bangladesh. It is considered the largest refugee camp in the world.

"These fences turn us into animals”

Kutupalong is broken up into 26 camps. Rohingya refugee Ro Sawyeddollah lives in Camp 15. Ro has been taking photos of daily life in the Kutupalong camps since he first arrived.

A friend of mine who lives in Camp 12 told me that they had started building fences in his area. I immediately went over there to take photos. I hid myself so I could take pictures discreetly of the soldiers working there.

Fencing off the camps is like turning them into zoos and us into animals. Internet blackouts, a lack of education and now being fenced in -- I feel like that the worsening living conditions in the camps, these human rights violations, are are deliberately designed to push us to leave and accept being deported back to Myanmar.

Soldiers build fences around the camps. (Photo: Ro Sawyeddollah)

The NGO Human Rights Watch has spoken out against this initiative, saying that “fencing in refugees in what will essentially be open-air prisons and cutting off communication services are neither necessary nor proportional measures to maintain camp security and are contrary to international human rights law.

“The fencing will place refugees at further risk should they urgently need to evacuate or obtain medical and other humanitarian services,” the rights group added.

In late August, a plan by Myanmar authorities to register 3,450 Rohingya refugees for voluntary repatriation failed when not a single person signed up. People are afraid of new outbreaks of violence, especially as the Myanmar government has still refused to grant them full citizenship rights. The refugees would not be able to return to their own villages, many of which have been razed to the ground.

“Fencing us in will make it easier for them to forcibly repatriate us”

The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to several refugees in Camp 11 who said that they were afraid that the barbed wire being installed around the camps might be a precursor to forced removal back to Myanmar. One of them, who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons, explained his fears.

The soldiers won’t tell us anything about the fences that they are building. They are surrounding us. We are afraid. In Myanmar, where we suffered abuse, we were also confined like this.

Construction underway in Camp 11 (Photo: Nur Hossain)

Our biggest fear is that fencing us in will make it easier for them to forcibly repatriate us.

In what way could this possibly be about keeping us safe? If we aren’t allowed to leave, what will we do when we need to go to hospital? And if we can’t get to the market, how will we eat?

Article by Pierre Hamdi (@PierreHamdi).