As the sun sets on Bangladesh's south coast, a sense of foreboding fills the air as the dark underbelly of the Rohingya refugee settlements gradually comes to the fore.
Men with arms and weapons, that had hitherto been stowed away, begin to emerge from the shadows, while drugs are used in plain view.
The inhabitants are accustomed to such scenes and even a murder would do little to unsettle them.
The killing of Mohammad Mohib Ullah, a prominent community leader who campaigned for the Rohingya's safe repatriation, however, brought the issue of security and crimes in the camps into sharp focus both at home and abroad.
A group of unidentified gunmen killed him at Lombashiya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar's Ukhiya on Sept 28.
Known as Master Mohib Ullah, the Rohingya leader, who was in his late 40s, had been serving as the chairman of Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights.
Recent data on crimes in Cox’s Bazar refugee camps, the largest settlements in the world, points to an escalation in criminal activities.
The camps, situated in remote areas of Cox’s Bazar, experience crimes ranging from family feuds to robbery, kidnapping, human trafficking and rape. Even attacks on police are quite common there, while the use of arms and drugs remains the same as before.
On Monday, the Armed Police Battalion (APBn) arrested five Rohingya men carrying sharp weapons from Balukhali Rohingya Refugee Camp in Ukhiya.
Police claim they are conducting regular raids on the camps to recover illicit materials and maintain law and order.
“The camp residents have no complaints about the security there,” said Cox's Bazar's Additional Superintendent of Police Rafiqul Islam.
Cases are routinely filed over domestic violence, rape as well as the use and possession of arms and drugs in the camps, according to him.
“The camps are small but are densely populated. There are conflicts among the residents. Mostly, cases are filed under the existing laws that cover those incidents.”
Police arrest the criminals and send them to the court in keeping with the rule of law, he said. “It’s an ongoing process. Also, members of the Armed Police Battalion members are always at hand to maintain security in the camps.”
Since 2017, more than 1.1 million Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh in the face of persecution and brutal military crackdown in Myanmar's Rakhine.
The UN described the Myanmar army's crackdown on the Rohingya as a "classic example of ethnic cleansing", while others have accused the country of committing genocide against the Muslim-minority group.
Despite the efforts of the law-enforcement agencies, the situation in the refugee camps will further deteriorate the longer the process of repatriation is delayed, warned Prof Wakar Uddin, chief of Arakan Rohingya Union, an organisation working for safe repatriation of Rohingya.
“The Myanmar army is well aware of that and therefore, they opted for a strategy to delay the repatriation process.”
After returning from last month's United National General Assembly, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said she highlighted the environmental damage caused by the high density of Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar to world leaders.
Criminal activities in Rohingya camps are not as widespread as they are being portrayed, according to Nur Khan, a human rights activist working with the Rohingya.
“In the camps, around 13 to 14 people live crammed in a small place. Most of them are teens and young people and may have conflicts among them,” he said.
“The disseminated statistics amount to nothing more than victim-blaming.”
“We must remember that Bangladesh has exhibited the strongest example of humanity by providing shelter to the Rohingya. The policymakers must keep it in mind before remarking on the issue.”
The statistics on crimes provided by different sources indicate that the situation in Rohingya camps is not much different from the rest of the country, Khan said.
“If you calculate the ratio of criminals among 1.4 million people, you’ll see that the results from the Rohingya camps are similar to any other part of Bangladesh.
"We have such large populations of Rohingya living in such congested camps. They have no access to education or entertainment. Also, the majority of the Rohingya population are teens and youths. It’s obvious that they'll be more prone to conflicts and clashes.”
Turning to the issue of cross-border drug trafficking, Khan said that it was nothing new in that part of the country. Even public representatives have been accused of running drug businesses on many occasions, he pointed out. The drug smugglers are using the Rohingya and the camps in different ways to further their business interests.
“Local criminals tend to be involved in crimes like mugging, kidnapping and drug use,” he said.
The human rights activist, however, mentioned that groups like Harakah al Yaqin or ARSA, RSO and Islami Mahaz are reportedly active inside the camps.
“Besides, people complain about Munna Group, Hakim Robbery Group and other criminal groups committing crimes like drug smuggling, robbery, kidnapping, extortion [in the camps].”
1,366 CASES IN FOUR YEARS
As many as 23 Rohingya camps fall under the jurisdiction of Ukhiya police and 11 are under Teknaf police.
At least 1,366 cases were filed with these two police stations, naming 2,348 Rohingya from Aug 25, 2017, to Sept 30 2021. Police have arrested 1,747 Rohingya suspects.
The cases focus on 10 types of crimes, including possession of arms and drugs, rape, murder, robbery, human trafficking, defying the Foreigners Act and attacking police, reports bdnews24.com.