WASHINGTON - Rohingya refugees, who escaped violence in Myanmar and settled in refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, are vulnerable to forced labor, human trafficking, and in some case to sexual exploitation, rights groups and activists warn.
“Restrictions on movement and the right to earn livelihoods have left many Rohingya refugees in very desperate straits,” Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told VOA.
“Some refugees are now taking risks to earn income outside the camps and they are being preyed upon by brokers and unscrupulous local employers who put them to work and then don’t pay them, or give only a fraction of what was agreed,” Robertson added.
A recent report published by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) also said that Rohingya Muslim refugees, particularly young women and girls, in Bangladesh have increasingly become victims of forced labor and sexual exploitation.
Focus on Cox’s Bazar
The report focused on refugee camps in the city of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, where more than 700,000 Rohingya have resettled after a major crackdown against them by the Myanmar military last year.
IOM spokesman Joel Millman said, “Individuals have mentioned instances of girls and young women recruited for domestic work or hotel maids and became trapped into forced prostitution."
In the past year, there have been at least 99 cases of documented human trafficking and sexual exploitation of refugees in Cox’s Bazar, according to the IOM.
The fleeing refugees in Bangladesh have given accounts of massacres, rape, murder and villages burned to the ground in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where the majority of Rohingya once lived.
The United Nations has called the atrocities “a textbook case” of ethnic cleansing.
Some rights activists also charge Rohingya girls are being kidnapped in large numbers and the host government in Bangladesh has failed to take adequate measures to stop it.
“The kidnapping of Rohingya girls from refugee camps has become a common phenomenon in Bangladesh and the government doesn’t seem to be capable of controlling it,” Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya blogger based in Frankfurt, Germany who closely follows the situation in Bangladesh, told VOA.
Lwin, who recently returned from visiting Bangladesh said, “The Bangladesh government is overwhelmed with the large number of Rohingya refugees.”
The IOM has called on all sides to step up their efforts to prevent the suffering of Rohingya refugees.
“Combating human trafficking requires a joint effort. The authorities, U.N. agencies, local partners, and communities have to work together and support each other in recognizing and addressing the risks,” Dina Parmer, an IOM official in Bangladesh said last week.
Robertson of HRW largely blames the Bangladeshi government for failing to provide job opportunities and the right to work for Rohingya refugees.
"Allowing refugees to work legally will benefit them and their families, offer them better protection against exploitation, and support the Bangladesh economy in the Cox’s Bazar area,” Robertson added.
But Bangladeshi officials push back on criticism against their government and charge they have been effective in securing sustained assistance for Rohingya refugees.
“Due to a number of factors, we are not able to offer the Rohingya population employment opportunities,” Mohammad Abul Kalam, the Refugee Relief and
Restoring ‘sense of normalcy’
Repatriation Commissioner at the Bangladesh Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief told VOA. He did not specify what those factors were.
“They largely depend on support from the government and the humanitarian community for the provision of most life essentials, such as food, shelter, wash facilities, health services, education, and limited livelihood opportunities within the camps,” Kalam added.
“The [Bangladesh] government and the humanitarian community need to play their part in restoring the hope, dignity, faith and confidence of the affected population and restore a sense of normalcy to their lives,” Kalam said.
“Part of the solution is to scale up livelihood opportunities, the access to and quality of education, and imparting transferable life skills,” he added.
Bangladesh is hosting nearly one million Rohingya refugees, according to Bangladesh government figures.
Bangladeshi officials say they are dealing with a major international crisis and the long-term solution to the Rohingya issue is not in Bangladesh.
“The crisis originated in Myanmar, and the solution also lies there,” Kalam said.
“Bangladesh wishes to give its neighbor the space to solve the crisis bilaterally and continues to work with the Myanmar government to develop a joint plan for future repatriation, once conditions are conducive for voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return,” he added.
A Myanmar government delegation is expected to arrive this week in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, for talks with government officials about the refugee situation.
According to blogger Lwin, the delegation will also attempt to convince Rohingya refugees to return to Myanmar.
“But Rohingya refugees don’t want to return to Myanmar without guarantees. They’re asking for international protection to make sure what happened last year won’t happen again,” he said.
The crisis has put pressure on government officials in Myanmar, including de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has come under international criticism for failing to take decisive action to prevent the suffering of Rohingyas.