Rohingyas waiting to be trafficked: UN & Bangladesh making them easy prey
by Suhas Chakma (ACHR) on 08 Jun 2015 6 Comments

The crackdown on human traffickers by the Government of Thailand since May 2015 and subsequent abandonment of the victims of trafficking, mainly Rohingyas, in the Indian Ocean has brought international spotlight on the deplorable situation of the Rohingyas in Myanmar. While the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration stated on 26 May 2015 that more than 2,500 migrants were believed to be still stranded on crammed abandoned overloaded boats in the sea with little food or water,[1] the UN warned that pushing the boats away could create a crisis of “floating coffins” and urged regional leaders to put human lives first. This was echoed by the United States[2] and the European Parliament, with the latter adopting a resolution urging Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to provide Rohingyas with at least temporary protection.[3]


This is only half of the story. That the UN and the Government of Bangladesh have been making the Rohingyas easy prey to traffickers and terrorist groups and further that the fleeing Rohingyas have turned into perpetrators of human rights violations on the indigenous Jumma peoples in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHTs) of Bangladesh have been consistently ignored and/or overlooked.


1. Making Rohingyas easy prey to the traffickers: UN and Bangladeshi way


The United Nations, which has raised the spectre of ‘floating coffins’ at sea, and the Government of Bangladesh by their acts of omission and commission, have been facilitating trafficking of the Rohingyas. In September 2014, the UNHCR stated, “It provides support to more than 32,000 registered refugees in two official camps (Nayapara and Kutupalong) in the district of Cox’s Bazar” but “it (UNHCR) is concerned about the protection of some 200,000 to 500,000 undocumented Myanmar Rohingya who have no legal status”.[4] 


These 200,000 to 500,000 undocumented Rohingyas are easy prey to traffickers, and the UNHCR and the Government of Bangladesh have been facilitating their trafficking by the failure to register them. That those refugees who are undocumented are the most vulnerable to trafficking is a fact known to both the UNHCR and the Government of Bangladesh.


The acknowledgement by the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry on 2 June 2015 that 716 migrants rescued from the Indian Ocean and sheltered at the camps in Malaysia are Bangladeshi nationals[5] indicates that boats carrying the migrants were either originating from Bangladesh or there is continuing infiltration from Bangladesh to Myanmar. The local officials and political leaders of Thailand and Bangladesh have been involved in trafficking of the Rohingyas and many Bangladeshis, whom the government termed as “mentally sick”, damaging the country’s image.[6] It will not be an understatement to assert that majority of these 200,000 to 500,000 undocumented Rohingyas are essentially waiting to be trafficked should they be able to organise finances to pay off the traffickers.


2. Pushing the Rohingyas to terror groups: UN and Bangladeshi way


The Rohingya refugees who are undocumented /unregistered, without any legal protection, and are forced to fend for themselves have also become easy prey of terror groups, including those from the Rohingyas. While there were reports of Rohingya language being one of the languages of instruction for training by Al-Qaeda, there have been consistent crackdowns on the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) by various governments for the acts of violence. Further, the repression on the Rohingyas also evoked sympathy among the terror groups in other countries.


In May 2013, Indonesia reported that it foiled an attempt to blow up the Embassy of Myanmar by arresting two men on suspicion of plotting to attack the embassy in retaliation for violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minorities.[7] Two Rohingya leaders identified as cleric Abu Arif and militant commander Abu Shafiyah, linked to the RSO, had visited Indonesia in May 2013 and met with hardline groups in Indonesia seeking more fighters, guns, cash and bomb-making instructors. A website founded by Muhammad Jibril Abdul Rahman, a member of the Indonesian radical Muslim group, Jemaah Islamiah, had reportedly uploaded 28 photos of Rohingyas undergoing military training in Rakhine state, saying it hoped the images would “encourage Muslims around the world to reignite jihad in Arakan.”[8]Muhammad Jibril allegedly has links to Al-Qaeda and Taliban and was put on a sanctions list by the United States in 2011.[9]


The serial bomb blasts on 7 July 2013 in and around Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya, India, the holiest place of the Buddhists,[10] were targetted at international Buddhist tourists to avenge the killings of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, according to Mohammed Umair Siddiqui, a suspect arrested for the bomb blast.[11]


On 20 November 2014, India’s National Intelligence Agency (NIA) arrested Myanmarese national and RSO member Khalid Mohammad from Hyderabad in connection with the Burdwan blast in West Bengal on 2 October 2014, in which two operatives of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) were killed while making bombs in a house. The NIA claimed that its investigation had revealed that Khalid had confessed to have received militant training from Pakistan’s Tehrik-e-Taliban on behalf of Myanmar outfit Tehrek-e-Azadi Arakan.[12]


The arrest of Khalid further led to the arrest of Md Shafiullah, a leader of the Awami League unit in Bandarban district in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, along with four others, namely, Salamat Ullah, Mohammad Amin, Abdul Majid and a Pakistani national, Mohammad Alam, on 23 November 2014 for allegedly having connection with the RSO.


While Md Shaifullah had alleged links with the RSO, Salamat Ullah was allegedly involved in the arson and vandalism on Buddhist minorities at Ramu and known as a chief organiser of the RSO in Cox’s Bazaar region.[13] On 23 November 2014, Fatema Begum, wife of Khalid, was also arrested along with three aides by the Bangladesh Police for allegedly providing militant training to at least 25 women in India. Fatima is the chief of the women’s wing of the banned Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh.[14]


Since Sheikh Hasina came to power in Bangladesh in 2009, the monitoring of the activities of the RSO has increased for alleged links with the Jamaat-i-Islami who are partners of the opposition Bangladesh National Party.


3. Fleeing Rohingyas have turned into perpetrators of human rights violations against indigenous Jumma peoples in the Chittagong Hill Tracts


Since Myanmar started repression of the Rohingyas, hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh since the late 1970s. Though exact figures are not available, it is assumed that since 1978, more than 500,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh.[15] It is reported that about 600,000 Rohingya refugees were settled in Saudi Arabia and about 200,000 in Pakistan as of May 2012.[16]


Despite claims of repatriation of majority of the Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar[17], as of September 2014, there were about 32,000 registered and about 200,000 to 500,000 unregistered Rohingyas in Bangladesh.[18] However, the UNHCR does not clarify as to how many of the unregistered Rohingya refugees have settled down on the lands of indigenous peoples in the CHTs. The UNHCR has consistently maintained silence on the impact of the Rohingya refugees on the local communities, including the indigenous peoples.


Thousands of these undocumented Rohingyas have been settled especially in the Bandarban district of the Chittagong Hill Tracts by the Government of Bangladesh with the aim to reduce indigenous Jumma peoples, mainly Buddhists, into minority in their own lands and to provide support and solidarity to the Rohingyas in neighboring Arakan province in Myanmar.


The Parbattya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti, a political organisation of indigenous Jumma peoples of the CHTs which signed the CHTs Peace Accord with the Government of Bangladesh in 1997, in a report in January 2013 stated, “On the other hand, the Muslim Bengali refugees of Arakan, Myanmar who are identified as Rohingya have been settled at Naikhyongchari, Ruma, Lama, Alikadam and Sadar area of Bandarban hill district with direct patronization and supervision of the local administrative authorities. They have been issued Permanent Resident Certificates and included in the local voter lists violating the terms of the CHT Accord. All development and employment facilities sanctioned in the name of the local indigenous peoples are being routed to them.”[19]


In a submission under the Universal Period Review of the UN Human Rights Council, it was claimed in 2009 that over 15,000 families of Rohingya Muslim refugees had been settled in Naikhyongchari, Ruma, Lama, Alikadam and Sadar area of Bandarban district with direct support from the government authorities.[20]


Many of these Rohingya refugees have been involved in the attacks on Buddhist minorities in Bangladesh, in particular, in and around the CHTs. For example, during 29-30 September 2012, Muslim religious fanatics attacked the Buddhist and Hindu minorities at Ramu, Ukhia, Patia and Teknaf under Chittagong Division of Bangladesh. At least 22 Buddhist temples and two Hindu temples were burnt down; dozens of Buddhist villages were attacked, displacing thousands of minorities. Of these, 15 Buddhist temples were burnt to ashes in Ramu Upazila (sub-district), four in Patia Police Station and five under Ukhia Upazila.[21] RSO leader Salamat Ullah was involved in the arson and vandalism and was arrested by the Bangladesh police along with four others in November 2014.[22]


4. Lip service of the international community


The international community has provided only lip service to the Rohingyas. The United Nations and international community have essentially left some 200,000 to 500,000 undocumented Myanmar Rohingyas to fend for themselves. Other than sponsoring resolutions at the UN, the international community consistently refused to bear expenses for the upkeep of the Rohingya refugees while successive Governments of Bangladesh adopted a policy to settle them in the CHTs. In effect, both the international community and the Government of Bangladesh encouraged the Myanmar government to expel the Rohingyas.


5. Recommendations


The Rohingya crisis cannot be resolved by dumping the Rohingyas in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, South East Asian countries or the Arab world, while none among the Western countries is either willing to provide shelter to the Rohingyas or share the burden of their up-keep in the camps. In turn, this has created a situation wherein a tiny section of the “better off”[23] Rohingyas fall prey to traffickers while the majority settle down in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and join the local illegal Muslim settlers to grab the lands and properties of indigenous peoples of the region, mostly Buddhists.


On 28 May 2015, the Government of Bangladesh proposed to move the Rohingya refugees to the Hatiya Island in the Bay of Bengal, but it has maintained absolute silence on thousands of Rohingyas settled in the Chittagong Hill Tracts which shares borders with Arakan province of Myanmar and where the RSO has been very active.


While Myanmar must be pressed to find a solution to the Rohingya crisis consistent with international human rights standards, the Asian Centre for Human Rights recommends:


1.      Provide shelter and legal protection to Rohingyas: All countries including Bangladesh must provide shelter to Rohingya asylum seekers and house them in proper relief camps and provide them legal protection through proper documentation and registration. Thereafter, all countries which receive Rohingyas should jointly hold dialogue with Myanmar for repatriation of Rohingyas sheltered in each country.  The international community including the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) must commit adequate financial resources for up-keeping the refugee camps. Failure to implement this specific recommendation shall ensure that Rohingyas will remain extremely vulnerable to traffickers and terrorists.


2.     Withdraw Rohingya refugees from Chittagong Hill Tracts: The Government of Bangladesh must withdraw the Rohingyas settled in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and ensure their repatriation to Myanmar. Failure to withdraw Rohingyas settled in the CHTs does not only have the potential to culturally destroy indigenous Jumma peoples, but also has the potential to pose a threat to regional security if the elements in the Government of Bangladesh provide shelter and support to the RSO and similar organizations.


ACHR receives regular reports that because of the local conflict between the indigenous Buddhist people and majority illegal[24] plain settlers belonging to majority Bengali Muslims in the CHTs, the Bangladesh Army personnel, local administration of the Government of Bangladesh, local Muslim politicians and many Islamic religious charitable organisations, have been providing support to the Rohingyas to make them permanent residents and voters of the CHTs and grab the lands of the indigenous Jumma peoples and also extend support and solidarity to the Rohingyas in neighbouring Arakan.



1. ‘Thousands of migrants are still stranded at sea - UN estimates’, Christian Today, 27 May 2015, 

2. ‘Rohingya And Bangladeshi Migrant Crisis Spurs Malaysia To Launch Talks’, The Huffington Post, 17 May 2015, 

3. ‘EU must act following Thai mass grave discovery’, The Parliament, 26 May 2015, 

4. BANGLADESH FACTSHEET September 2014, UNHCR available

5. 716 Bangladeshis in Malaysian camps, Gulf Times, 3 June 2015, 

6. ‘Bangladesh PM says illegal migrants taint national image’, BBC News, 24 May 2015, 

7. ‘Myanmar’s Rifts Make Waves in Indonesia’, Wall Street Journal, 3 May 2013,

8. ‘2 Rohingya leaders go shopping for terror in Indonesia’, The Jakarta Post,

9. Ibid.

10. ‘Bodh Gaya blasts executed to avenge attack on Rohingyas in Myanmar, says terror suspect’, India Today, 6 January 2014, 

11. Bodh Gaya temple attack ‘was revenge for Rohingyas’, The Daily Mail, UK, 6 January 2014 available at

12. ‘Burdwan blast: NIA arrests Myanmar national’, The Hindustan Times, 19 November 2014, 

13. Local Awami League leader among ‘militants’ arrested,, 24 November 2014,

14. ‘Burdwan blast mastermind’s wife, 8 others held in Bangladesh’, Business Standard, 23 November 2014, 

15. ‘Long-term plan needed to check human smuggling – Iftekharul Bashar’, The Malaysian Insider, 27 May 2015,

16. Delhi plays reluctant host to Myanmar’s nowhere people, The Times of India, 26 May 2012, 


May 2000, Human Rights Watch

18. BANGLADESH FACTSHEET September 2014, UNHCR available

19. Page 20, “Report on the Implementation of the CHT Accord” PCJSS, January 2013

20. Submission of the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) Foundation on Human Rights Situation of the Indigenous Peoples (Adivasi) in Bangladesh to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) available at

21. Asian Center for Human Rights, ‘24 Buddhist and Hindu temples burnt in Bangladesh - India and UN urged to intervene, 1 October 2012’, available at:

22. Local Awami League leader among ‘militants’ arrested,, 24 November 2014,

23. The word “better off” is used consciously as those seeking asylum in South East Asia are required to pay the traffickers and therefore in a financially better position than other Rohingyas who struggle for two meals a day.

24. The word is being used consciously as the settlement of non-indigenous persons in the Chittagong Hill Tracts is prohibited Article 52 of the CHTs 1900 Regulation which governs the region as on date and the Geneva Conventions. “Article 52. Immigration into the Hill Tracts: a) Save as hereinafter provided, no person other a Chakma, Mogh or a member of any hill tribe indigenous to the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the Lushai Hill, the Arakan Hill Tracts, or the State of Tripura shall enter or reside within the Chittagong Hill Tracts unless he is in possession of a permit granted by the Deputy Commissioner at his discretion. d) No permit shall be valid for more than twelve months from the date of its grant. Every person required by this rule to be in possession of a permit shall be bound to produce it on the demand of any Government officer, headman, Karbari or Bazar Chaudhuri, and on his failure to produce such permit such government officer, headman, Karbari or Bazar Choudhuri shall arrest him and forward him without delay to the nearest police officer or Magistrate.” Further, such implantation of settlers is prohibited under Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Conventions which states that “The occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies”.


While governments deny the “occupation of particular region” and the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the issues that prompted the Fourth Geneva Conventions transcend the issue of “occupation”. The intention of the Fourth Geneva Convention is to prevent the abuse of human rights, and consequently the issue of historical sovereignty is irrelevant to the prohibition of the transfer of population. International Commission of Jurists in its report “Israeli Settlements in Occupied Territories”, Review of the International Commission of Jurists, No 19, (35), December 1977 stated, “Much of the Convention, including Article 49, is declaratory of the preexisting international law and such provisions in the Convention should be recognized as being of universal applicability and binding”.


The author is Director, Asian Centre for Human Rights

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