Long-Persecuted Rohingya Find Refuge, But Not Acceptance, In Bangladesh : Parallels Rohingya Muslims fleeing a recent crackdown in Myanmar are just the latest wave of refugees to arrive in Bangladesh. But patience is wearing thin in the impoverished country with scarce resources.

Long-Persecuted Rohingya Find Refuge, But Not Acceptance, In Bangladesh

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Let's return to the story of the Rohingya. They're a Muslim minority group in Buddhist majority Myanmar. And they have been persecuted by that country's government for decades, so much so that many flee for something better somewhere else. Sometimes they go by boat south toward Malaysia or they go across the border into neighboring Bangladesh.

By some estimates, there are now more than 500,000 Rohingya stranded in Bangladesh which has grudgingly offered them refuge but not acceptance. As Michael Sullivan reports from southern Bangladesh, local patience is wearing thin.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: I'm walking down what will soon be the new highway that will link this place, Teknaf, with its beautiful beaches on the Bay of Bengal, with Cox's Bazar 50 miles up the road. And the developers have already staked out their claims alongside the road from when this road gets finished. And that's what the Bangladeshi government is hoping for. They're hoping that this will be the new beach tourist destination.



SULLIVAN: Until then, Cox's Bazar will have to do, and it has its charms.


SULLIVAN: A terrifying Jet Ski ride, for instance, on what's billed as the world's longest beach. And there's parasailing and pony rides, too.


SULLIVAN: But it's still very much a work in progress. Getting to the beachside hotels can be a challenge on roads packed with rickshaws, motorbikes and really big buses on really narrow streets - but they're working on it. And Lieutenant Colonel Anwar Ul Islam, who heads the Cox's Bazar Development Authority, has big plans - starting with a new airport.

ANWAR UL ISLAM: We look for the tourists from all over the world. We have a goal to attract them. Yeah, that's why the airport is going to be the international airport.

SULLIVAN: So you're building a newer, bigger airport to accommodate more flights and bigger planes?

UL ISLAM: Yeah. Yes, big airplanes. Yeah.

SULLIVAN: And if that happens, he says, he's confident the foreign tourists will come, that Cox's Bazar will give Thailand and the Philippines a run for their money and bring badly needed jobs and investment in a country of more than 150 million that hasn't enough of either.

UL ISLAM: Yes, definitely, definitely.

SULLIVAN: But there's a problem. Almost all of those Rohingya refugees, they live in and around here, not a big selling point for a go-to tourist destination. And the colonel knows it.

UL ISLAM: It is an issue. It is an issue. Actually, the government has decided if we can relocate these Rohingya to another places, it will be better.

SULLIVAN: Better for the Rohingya if they get to a third country - like they want - and better for Bangladesh, too. Until then, they're stuck here, not allowed to move or even work - not legally, anyway. This is a brick factory a short drive from Cox's Bazar.

The brickmaking here labor intensive, the workers shaping, drying then baking the bricks that help fuel the construction boom in Cox's Bazar. The factory manager, Shah Jahan, says he hires Rohingya for the nastiest jobs - hauling the coal to bake the bricks.

SHAH JAHAN: (Through interpreter) We don't recruit them. If they come looking for work and we need people, we give them a job.

SULLIVAN: He's even given one Rohingya a permanent job as a mechanic to keep the ovens cooking. Hassan - we're only using his first name because he's not supposed to be working here - is 30 years old and fled here two years ago fearing arrest in Myanmar. And this job, he says, is the best he's had since he came here.

HASSAN: (Through interpreter) The last job I had, the boss tried to cheat me and didn't give me my full salary. He told me if I complained, he'd have someone hurt me. So I left and came here.

SULLIVAN: Hassan says he sends about half the hundred dollars a month he earns back to his family still living in Myanmar. But many locals think he shouldn't even have a job as a refugee. At a nearby construction site we meet two - Habibur Rahaman and Ala-uddin.

HABIBUR RAHAMAN: (Through interpreter) We compete for the same jobs. The more of them that come, the less opportunities we have to work and to make money. They'll also work for half the wages we get.

SULLIVAN: Ala-uddin is more blunt.

ALA-UDDIN: (Through interpreter) It's already poor. We don't need any more Rohingya coming here and making it worse. Not all Rohingya are bad, some are good, but they still take our jobs. And some are involved in the illegal drugs trade, too.

SULLIVAN: And not just the drug trade, some analysts worry a newly-formed Rohingya insurgent group could start recruiting in the camps here and use them as a staging area for attacks into Myanmar.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

SULLIVAN: In this video uploaded to YouTube, one of the group's alleged leader's calls for a Rohingya uprising against the Myanmar military. If that happens, it could prompt another furious response from the military and another wave of refugees.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

SULLIVAN: This might help explain the Bangladeshi government's announcement in January it was going ahead with plans to relocate the Rohingya refugees to a remote island some three hours away by boat. That announcement caused alarm in the international aid community and fear among the Rohingya.

ABUL KASHEM: (Through interpreter) They don't want to go to the island of Thengar Char.

SULLIVAN: Abul Kashem is an unlikely advocate for the Rohingya, a Bangladeshi human rights activist who runs the NGO Help Cox's Bazar.

KASHEM: (Through interpreter) Who would want to be sent to an island where the water swells up and people cannot live? None of them are willing to go to Thengar Char.

SULLIVAN: He's sympathetic to his countrymen's complaints about competition for scarce resources but he's more sympathetic to the Rohingya's plight.

KASHEM: (Through interpreter) They neither get support in their country, nor can they feel at home here in this country. They are really vulnerable. They're deprived of all the rights of education, country, religion and language. They're deprived of everything.

SULLIVAN: The Rohingya have no good options, he says - stay in squalid camps here barely surviving or risk returning home to Myanmar and retribution from the military. Of the 70,000 who fled since October, only a handful have chosen to go back. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.


GREENE: And our series on the Rohingya this week was produced by Ashley Westerman. You can find more of that reporting on the Rohingya and photos from their trip to southern Bangladesh at npr.org.


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