Kabir is from a wealthy family that once owned 20 grocery shops in Rakhine State. In 2015, Kabir’s parents decided that he should move to Saudi Arabia to work as a hundi [informal remittance transfer agent] because they could see no hope for sustainable solutions for the Rohingya, and did not foresee peace for Myanmar. Kabir traveled to Saudi Arabia by using a Bangladeshi passport and arrived smoothly, but was arrested three months after his arrival for failing to possess a residency card.
Kabir explains that Saudi authorities frequently patrol certain residential areas in which undocumented migrants are thought to be living and check people’s documents. This is how he was caught. His family paid 200,000 taka (2,340 USD) for his release. He was able to remain in Saudi Arabia, and worked for a few months in an electronics shop managed by his brother-in-law. But he was then arrested again. Once more, his family tried to pay a fine, but was unable to do so, and Kabir was deported to Dhaka. He says he felt very disappointed and upset that he was unable to fulfill his family’s plan for him to work as a hundi. As a self-described ambitious person, Kabir was frustrated that his dream was squandered.
After his deportation, Kabir traveled across Bangladesh and back to Myanmar by land. His father had to make careful arrangements for his return because Myanmar authorities often harassed and made accusations against Rohingya families whose sons left the home village. Kabir’s father paid 5,000,000 Myanmar kyat (2,830 USD) to a local official, the district administrator, to ensure that Kabir could safely return to the family’s village and be reinstated on the family counting list updated each year.
Kabir resumed his former job helping run the family businesses back home in Myanmar. His was one of the more prominent Rohingya business families in Maungdaw, with 11 shops clustered in a market in one part of the township, and an additional 9 shops in another area. Kabir says that, because people in the area had already lost most of their assets over decades of asset seizures by the authorities, they never charged high prices. In order to maintain their assets, the family made various investments in Sittwe and imported products from Yangon, which they often purchased through Chinese dealers. These products included cigarettes and cooking oil. As of August 2017, the family was storing 1,000 drums of oil and 1,000 boxes of cigarettes in three warehouses, and business was going well. When the violence broke out that month, all three warehouses and all 20 shops were burned. Like many others, Kabir and his family fled to the camps in Bangladesh.
After adjusting to life in the camps alongside other refugees, the family restarted some of its businesses, though at a much smaller scale. They opened a grocery shop in the camp and have converted a tarpaulin shelter into a small warehouse, which enables them to continue some wholesale business.
In this tarpaulin warehouse, the family keeps products for distribution at small shops across the camps, such as bottled drinks. These products are sourced through existing business links, and some are Myanmar products imported from Maungdaw via Teknaf. These Myanmar products are widely consumed by refugees, but uncommon in the rest of Bangladesh. They include sachets of Rich Coffee, betel nut, tea leaf salad, loose leaf green and black teas, and Mama instant noodles. Most of these items are much more expensive in the camps than they were in Myanmar. For example, Rich Coffee costs 100 taka (1.17 USD) per pack, but costs only 40 taka (0.5 USD) in Myanmar. Kabir says people are willing to pay more because they feel happy when they consume Myanmar products, which remind them of home.
It isn’t easy to run a camp business, Kabir says. Importers are required to pay an official 50 percent customs tax, which camp authorities sometimes request proof of from both refugees and locals. The family is permitted to operate their camp shops and wholesale business as long as they can show the customs tax receipt, so they don’t take any risks and avoid illegal imports.
Kabir explains that some products from Myanmar such as gold and cigarettes are not permitted for import so traders sometimes bring them over illegally. However, in the last 6 months, things have been changing. Some local businesspersons have begun importing the same products and Kabir thinks they may be paying a discounted customs tax rate.
With these people inserting themselves as middlemen, Rohingya can no longer import products to the camps directly from Myanmar. This has a negative effect on business and has caused prices to go up by 5 to 10 percent, Kabir estimates. He heard that one of the local businesspersons told some other refugees that he would loot their shops if they crossed him by buying directly, and also heard that this is in effect across all of Kutupalong.
According to Kabir, because camp life is so difficult, those who can save or access money are always thinking about how to send their children out of the camp. People feel unsure if and when repatriation will be possible, but feel they will not be able to sustain life in the camps and are desperate to find ways to keep building their lives in the meantime. Kabir guesses that at least 10 percent of camp families are working toward sending one or more children abroad to a third country outside of Myanmar and Bangladesh because they cannot see any other way to invest in their futures.