On 25 August 2017, Myanmar Army enacted the ‘ARSA drama’ that led to the mass exodus of Rohingyas from their ancestral abode and pushed them into Bangladesh. There has been little progress in the repatriation of refugees over the last five years. Myanmar's military regime, the mastermind behind the eviction and genocidal crimes against the Rohingyas, is at the helm of state affairs through the coup orchestrated on 1 February 2021.
Over the last five years since 2017, there has been little progress in the repatriation of refugees. Myanmar does not seem willing to take back its people any time soon. The junta has been gradually pushing the repatriation process into uncertainty. The delay will not bar the refugee population from growing. The primary casualty in the delay in any refugee repatriation has the risk of creating demographic imbalance in the area where refugees are sheltered impacting the societal and security issues.
According to the Bangladesh Government and the UNHCR joint report of 31 March 2022, a total of 926,561 refugees are sheltered in different camps in Teknaf. The number of registered households is 194,766 and average family size is 4.8. According to the joint report, 22,976 refugees have been relocated to Bhashan Char. The remaining 903,585 refugees are in different camps in Teknaf upazila. Every year 35,000 babies are born in Rohingya camps. From this account, population growth rate in refugee camps is 3.77.
According to Bangladesh census report 2011, Teknaf upazila had a population of 249,389 and 46,328 households in 2010. Population Growth Calculator online estimates Teknaf’s population 291,199 in 2022 at 1.30% growth rate. At the same growth rate, Teknaf’s population is estimated 331,348 in 2032.
At a 3.77% growth rate, the refugee population could reach about 1.30 million in 2032, four time higher than the population projected for Teknaf in 2032. The number of households will increase to 279,480 in 2032 forcing refugees to live in wider areas outside the camps. Increase in households will be about 49.50%. Therefore, at first instance, numerical imbalance between local and refugee population will continue to persist.
Cox’s Bazar, Ramu and Teknaf upazilas had a total population of 990,111 in 2010 census. At 1.30% growth rate, the population in three Upazilas is predicted at 1,131,696 in 2022 and 1,290,000 in 2032. Refugee population in camps in Teknaf, after refugee relocation to Bhashan Char, is 903,585 in 2022. At 3.77% growth rate, refugee population in the camps in Teknaf is predicted to reach 1,308,000 in 2032. A comparison of projected refugee population with the local population of Teknaf in 2032 and its adjoining upazilas, portends an omen of acute demographic imbalance which could create multifaceted social and geopolitical security problems.
Besides numerical difference, demographic imbalance is also simmering by age group and sex ratio. According to the joint report on refugee population’s age group – 51% (472,546) is children between 0 and 17 years, 45% (416,952) is adult between 18 and 59 years, older person (60+) is 4% (37,062) and person with disability is 1% (9,265). In the adult age group (18-59), 19.6% is male and 24.3% female. In this group, there are 43,559 more female than male population. The male-female ratio is 100:124. Whereas, overall male-female ratio in Teknaf’s local population in 2010 was 100:101 and in the Cox’s Bazar district the ratio was 100:104. In the refugee children’s category (0-17 years), male-female ratio is 100:95. Highly disproportionate sex ratio in refugee population, an element of demographic imbalance, could be a catalyst to increasing social crime.
Anti-repatriation group under the banner of ARSA has been created and active in the refugee camps. The killing of Mohib Ullah, the Rohingya leader on 29 September 2021 was a violent act of the anti-repatriation group to terrorise refugees working for repatriation
Security issues associated with refugee crisis are both perceived and real which encompass social and military dimension of insecurity. As the repatriation delays, refugee population grows and spreads into the adjoining areas. Rohingya population will not remain within the boundary of the camps.
The current adult male population (18-59) in the Rohingya refugee camps is 181,605. These adult population is seeking jobs. Number of job seekers from refugees are more than the number in the local population. Rohingyas offer cheaper labor than the locals. Competition to get job will be more as the number of adult population increases. Not finding a source of earning, many of them are engaged in drug trading/trafficking and other anti-social activities. Armed violence is another kind of crime in the camps. These vulnerabilities are prone to exploitation by cross border trouble makers. Alarmingly, the refugee population, with no future in sight are exposed to exploitation by both state and non-state actors.
Anti-repatriation group under the banner of ARSA has been created and active in the refugee camps. The killing of Mohib Ullah, the Rohingya leader on 29 September 2021 was a violent act of the anti-repatriation group to terrorise refugees working for repatriation. Myanmar military will keep the ARSA story alive with purpose.
Any workable initiative to send refugees back to their home country will depend on international conscious and the verdict of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) which follows a lengthy judicial process. The security situation in Teknaf and its wider areas is most likely to take a complex turn on the issue of repatriation or the implementation of the ICJ’s judgement, if the Gambia gets a favourable verdict. The Myanmar military regime, with backing of regional powers, will do whatever it takes to foil any initiative on refugee repatriation. It will not be surprising if more criminal gangs like ARSA are organised to create chaos in the camps. This might force refugees to escape camps and seek shelter in the mainstream population creating a confrontational situation between local population and Rohingyas.
To conclude with a note of caution, the Myanmar regime tried to pull Bangladesh into a border conflict while perpetrating genocidal crime against Rohingya in 2017.
* Mohammad Abdur Razzak, a retired Commodore of Bangladesh Navy, is a security analyst. He can be reached at [email protected]