As Rohingya Flee Myanmar, Bangladesh Bans Three Muslim Aid Groups

October 20, 2017
Rohingya refugees

In what some are describing as the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya minorities have fled Myanmar since this August. As neighboring Bangladesh continues to accept refugees, however, it has begun to screen aid organizations in the name of security.

The Rohingya people have long faced discrimination in Myanmar, where they are both a religious and ethnic minority. Tensions peaked in late August when a group of Rohingya insurgents attacked 30 police and army posts in response to ongoing violence perpetuated against them by the Myanmar state.

In the days following the rebellion, Myanmar security forces and local vigilantes surrounded the Rakhine state, methodically burning Rohingya villages and “often [opening] fire, killing or seriously injuring at least hundreds of people,” Amnesty International reported.

Bangladesh, which borders Myanmar, has struggled to absorb the brunt of hundreds of thousands of refugees desperate for entry. Many Rohingya continue to wait in muddy camps at the border as Bangladeshi authorities begin to organize travel to a more permanent refugee site.

Rohingya refugees

Vivian Tan, a spokesperson for the U.N.’s refugee agency, told TIME that Bangladesh intends to welcome all of the half-million refugees waiting at the border, despite already housing nearly one million Rohingya who fled from earlier waves of violence in Myanmar. Joint secretary of the Bangladesh Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission Mohammed Abul Kalam echoed Tan’s sentiments.

“This is a gigantic task,” Kalam said. “We’re doing our best, but when it comes to capacity we need support.”

A number of aid organizations have mobilized to help Bangladesh accommodate the massive swell of refuge-seekers, but Bangladeshi authorities have expressed concern that some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) seek personal gain.

Last Thursday, October 12, Bangladesh’s NGO Affairs Bureau banned three Islamic charity organizations—Muslim Aid, Islamic Relief, and the Allama Fazlullah Foundation—from working with the refugees. Authorities said that they have been screening all incoming organizations, but cited their decision to bar the three Islamic organizations as a preventative measure against potential radicalization in the camps.

“[The Rohingya] are vulnerable. A lot can be done with this Rohingya people. We need to be careful,” said Bangladeshi MP Mahjabeen Khaled, adding that it would be “easy” for groups with nefarious intent to radicalize the displaced persons. 

Rohingya refugees hold sign

Waseem Ahmed, a director of Islamic Relief, told Agence France-Presse that concerns about the organization’s intentions are “baseless and misguided.”

“Since we are still awaiting approval from the government and haven’t started any projects yet in the camps, it would be completely unwarranted to tag us with any activities that we haven’t conducted,” Ahmed said.

Islamic extremism has long plagued Bangladesh. In 2016, a coordinated terrorist attack claimed the lives of 22 civilians at an artisanal bakery. Over the past few years, dozens of individuals from minority religious groups have been killed in lone-wolf attacks borne out of extremist ideologies. After Bangladesh authorities faced significant criticism over their response to the attacks, the US Department of State reported that they were working with Bangladesh to help them develop a “screening infrastructure” at their borders, bdnews24 reported.

The Rohingya themselves have been the target of religious extremism for decades. As Muslims in a majority-Buddhist nation, the Rohingya are often “seen as foreigners trying to infiltrate the country, and Buddhists of the strident type see them as trying to undermine their faith,” said Robert Taylor, a scholar of Myanmar political history. Since state leader Aung San Suu Kyi rose to power in 2015, Buddhist nationalism has surged, precipitating violent, militarized attacks on Muslims minorities.

As hundreds of thousands of Rohingya wait at the border, however, the most pressing issue facing Bangladesh is the question of how to ensure refugees’ temporary shelter is adequate for survival.

“This isn’t going to be short-term, it isn’t going to end anytime soon,” said Unicef official Simon Ingram yesterday. “There is a very, very severe risk of outbreaks of water-borne diseases, diarrhea and quite conceivably cholera in the longer-term.”

As of Monday, UNICEF’s $76 million appeal was only 7 percent funded.

--by Caroline Matas

Image sources:

1. Rohingya refugees. Photo by European Commission DG ECHO, Flickr Creative Commons.

2. Rohingya refugees. Photo by European Commission DG ECHO, Flickr Creative Commons.


3. Rohingya refugees. Photo by European Commission DG ECHO, Flickr Creative Commons.