KUTUPALONG, BANGLADESH —
More than 20 years after the first wave of Rohingya Muslims fled Myanmar, fear is spreading through the sweltering camps of mud houses where they found shelter in southern Bangladesh that they will soon be on the move again.
The refugees worry the Bangladesh government wants them out of sight, perhaps to one of its islands in the Bay of Bengal, as the two countries argue over what to do with a stateless minority whose search for security is driving a regional migrant crisis.
"This is home for us now, it is peaceful here." said Nur Alam, who crossed the Naf river that separates the two countries in a tiny boat in 1991. "We are not sure we will be safe elsewhere."
About 33,000 men, women and children live crammed into two dilapidated camps in the villages of Kutupalong and Nayapara, near the Myanmar border, that are supported by the United Nations and the Bangladesh government. They are the lucky ones.
There are anywhere from 200,000 to 400,000 more Rohingyas in nearby camps and hills whom the government will not even recognize as temporary refugees lest it weaken its case to send them back to Myanmar, where they say they face persecution.
H.T. Imam, political adviser to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, said the presence of so many foreigners without proper identity documents or work was causing problems for local people and hindering development.
"The Rohingya are the citizens of Myanmar and they must go back," he said. "We feel for them, but we are unable to host them any longer."
International focus on the festering plight of the Rohingya has sharpened in recent weeks as more than 4,000 migrants have washed up in rickety boats on the shores of Southeast Asia.
The migrants, mostly Rohingyas but also Bangladeshis escaping poverty, were abandoned at sea by people smugglers after Thailand launched a crackdown on gangs trafficking their human cargo across its southern border with Malaysia.
Bangladesh, one of the world's most densely populated countries of 160 million people, is concerned that if it kept accepting fellow Muslims from Myanmar it would only encourage the flow across its border.
Myanmar does not recognize its estimated 1.1 million Rohingya population as citizens, even though many have lived for generations in its western Rakhine state. The government refers to them as "Bengalis" and considers them illegal immigrants.
Mohammad Shah Kamal, secretary to Bangladesh's ministry of disaster management and relief, said he had proposed finding alternative space for the camps, but the land ministry could not find any.
Local media have reported that the government was considering moving the two camps to Hatiya island, several hours journey away by bus and boat.
A government official said Hasina had told a recent meeting that the camps were hindering tourism in nearby Cox's Bazar, which boasts the world's longest unbroken beach.
Hasina suggested officials look for an uninhabited stretch of land near a river bed to accommodate the camps, the official who was present at the meeting said, requesting anonymity.
The U.N.'s refugee agency, the UNHCR, said it had not been consulted about any proposal to relocate the camps.
"We hope that if any move takes place, it will be carried out in a dignified manner. The success of any relocation will depend on the refugees' perception of living conditions at the new location," said UNHCR spokeswoman Onchita Shadman.
Inside the camp
Nur Alam, looking much older than his 43 years, is worried about more than just the plans to move the refugees.
One of his seven children is not registered because he was born to a second wife, and he fears he would have to leave the 11-year-old boy behind when the rest of the family move.
The children played around the small and sparse hut at the edge of the unmarked camp which is closed to outsiders. The refugees are not supposed to go out and mix with locals.
His wife Rupban, 35, sat in the doorway, so small it was necessary to almost crawl to enter the dwelling. "We don't want to move again," she said firmly.
Nur Alam's family live off the rations provided by the aid agencies. There is little else to do.
Even so, Ruhul Amin, 43, who crossed over from Myanmar seven years ago, is desperate to be listed as one of the documented refugees and live inside the camp, where soap and other basics are handed out and children attend classes.
Instead, he and his family of eight live in a hillside shack, scraping by on whatever he can earn as a day laborer.
He might make 250 Bangladesh taka ($3.22) a day, he said, half what a local would be paid. Sometimes they get alms during religious holidays.
"We have no choice," he said. "If the authorities tell us to move, we will move. But we can't go back to Myanmar."
In recent months the local mood has hardened against the Rohingya, in part because they are blamed for encouraging poor Bangladeshis to join the thousands making the perilous journey abroad.
"They are the pioneers in these boat crossings to Malaysia," said Kutupalong village official Ahmad. "They started going first, then they have been telling our youth to move because of commissions they receive."
($1 = 77.7300 taka)