Bangladesh police accused of abusing Rohingya refugees

The Armed Police Battalion is a specialized combat unit of the Bangladesh police force
Deutsche Welle

Rohingya people living in refugee camps in the Bangladeshi city of Cox's Bazar are being arbitrarily detained, beaten and tortured by members of the Armed Police Battalion (APBn) — a specialised combat unit of the Bangladesh police force — an investigation by the human rights NGO Fortify Rights has revealed.

"Bangladesh police beat Rohingya refugees from Myanmar with batons and choked and used other torture methods against them to extort payments, sometimes amounting to the equivalent of thousands of US dollars," the group said last week.

The APBn has been responsible for maintaining security in the refugee camps since July 2020. The force has since faced repeated accusations of human rights abuses against the Rohingya.

Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of Fortify Rights, said police are "using Rohingya refugees like human ATMs by inflicting severe physical and mental pain to demand corrupt payments."

Earlier this year, another international organisation, Human Rights Watch, also accused APBn of committing extortion, arbitrary arrests and harassment of Rohingya refugees.

Both Fortify Rights and HRW said their reports were based on interviews with Rohingya living in the camps.

Rohingya refugees in overcrowded camps

Bangladesh is currently home to around a million Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority from Rakhine state in neighboring Myanmar.

In 2017, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled Myanmar after the military there launched a clampdown on the community. It led to one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.

The violence is now subject to a genocide probe at the International Criminal Court.

Most of these refugees have since been living in bamboo and tarpaulin huts in the squalid and overcrowded refugee camps in Cox's Bazar, which is located on Bangladesh's southeastern coast.

The APBn has been responsible for maintaining security in the camps since July 2020
Deutsche Welle

A culture of corruption and abuse?

"The safety and security situation in the camps has deteriorated under the APBn's supervision," Rezaur Rahman Lenin, a Rohingya researcher based in Cox's Bazar, told DW.

"Recent testimonies from Rohingya refugees and aid workers point to an institutionalized culture of corruption and abuse within the APBn," he added.

"What is needed is a clear policy that is inclusive of Rohingya voices to ensure their human rights are adequately protected. Without it, law enforcement agencies will continue to commit crimes against the vulnerable community, and the problem will get bigger."

Ambia Parveen, a Rohingya activist based in Germany, shares a similar view.

"It's sad to see that we are even targeted by our Bangladeshi friends. They do not leave us alone and use us for financial comfort. This issue of extortion by police in the camps is getting increasingly worse," she told DW.

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Deteriorating security situation

Parveen said authorities are particularly targeting Rohingya youth who are advocating for refugee rights or those working for NGOs.

"Many police or security guards deployed at the camps have become corrupted. They see Rohingya refugees as a source of potential extra income," she said. "The sad part is that if someone cannot pay extortion money after being detained, they will send them to jail."

The security situation in the sprawling cluster of Rohingya refugee settlements has deteriorated in recent years. Violence has been on the rise, with armed gangs vying for power and kidnapping opponents.

Some refugees have been accused of trafficking yaba, a methamphetamine drug, in the camps. Human trafficking has also become a major concern, as many Rohingya desperately try to migrate to a third country to start a new life.

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Calls for more accountability

Most Rohingya in Bangladesh lack recognized legal status, making it difficult for them to seek protection under domestic law.

Lenin pointed out that the legal system in place is also "slow and discriminatory," resulting in "impunity."

"I am unaware of any case where any law enforcement agency member from APBn was brought to justice for committing crimes inside the Rohingya refugee camps," Lenin said.

Human rights groups have urged the Bangladeshi government to hold corrupt APBn officials accountable.

But Amir Zafar, an additional deputy inspector general of APBn, has denied allegations that no action was being taken against corrupt officials.

He told DW that some members of the force have recently been sacked for their involvement in illegal activities in the camps.

"We take such allegations very seriously. If any police official gets involved in unethical activities, we take action after conducting an investigation," he said.

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