A crackdown on undocumented Rohingya migrants in Cox’s Bazar

“When I was two years old my parents came to Bangladesh from Myanmar as migrants,” explains Zafor. “Our family were farmers in Myanmar. We had some land. My dad always told me about the many hardships he and my grandparents faced in their day. But it wasn’t as bad there then as it is now.”

“I grew up in Cox’s Bazar town, not as a refugee. My father was a laborer. I only studied until the second grade because of my family’s financial difficulties. We were just living hand to mouth.” Things gradually improved for the family, and Zafor eventually achieved financial security working as a fisherman in Cox’s Bazar. He could earn as much as 1,500 taka (17.5 USD) per day, a high wage by local standards. 

For many years, the family’s lack of documentation was not a major cause for concern, though Zafor says his parents always dreamt of living with true freedom. Things started to shift around 2010. Bangladesh announced that it would imprison any illegal immigrants from Myanmar. One day, Zafor’s uncle was arrested, and he was sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of illegal migration. 

Zafor’s uncle was one of many Rohingya migrants detained in a large sting operation that Zafor recalls resulted in the sentencing of around 150 to 200 people. Zafor’s parents became fearful and decided to leave Bangladesh in 2011. They decided it would be best to rebuild their lives once again, this time in Jammu Kashmir, India. 

Shortly after his parents’ departure, Zafor got married to a young Rohingya woman who had grown up in the refugee camp about an hours’ drive south of the town of Cox’s Bazar town. Within a year, the couple welcomed their first child. Because he was just starting a family, Zafor didn’t want to go to India at first. But in August 2012, after hearing from a friend about how India was a free and democratic country, he decided that it would be best for he, his wife and their baby to join his parents.

Eking out a living in Jammu Kashmir

Zafor says he didn’t have any opportunities once he arrived in Jammu Kashmir. “I survived by picking through trash and selling recyclables,” he shares. “I had to do what I could do. I was not happy, but I did have more freedom there. I got a UNHCR card and was able to register as a refugee.” 

Staying in India felt like the only option, and Zafor saw no possibility of returning to Myanmar. “We had relatives in Myanmar until the exodus of 2017, but we knew it would never be safe to go back. When you’re a Rohingya, once you’ve left Myanmar it’s really hard to ever go back, because Myanmar is convinced you’re a Bangladeshi migrating illegally.”

“Also, it’s unsafe for Rohingya to live in Myanmar,” he says. “It’s not the same situation as that of Bangladeshi migrant workers, who can return home after even 10 or 15 years abroad. In Myanmar, they probably take you off the family list so you can never prove you were born there.”

Zafor worked as a trash picker for two years after arriving in Jammu Kahmir. After that, he got a job in construction, which paid better. He earned 900 rupees (12 USD) a day, enough to support his family. He and his wife welcomed two more children during the six years they lived in India.

Returning to Bangladesh as a refugee

After a few stable years, the political climate faced by Rohingya in India started to change in 2018. In Jammu Kashmir, Zafor says, an anti-Rohingya propaganda campaign was promoted by Hindu nationalists, and government officials started threatening to send Rohingyas back to Myanmar. Zafor and his family were terrified by the prospect of being forcibly sent to Myanmar. They knew they could stay in the camps in Bangladesh with safety and security and receive rations. Zafor, his wife, and their three children traveled back to Bangladesh in January 2019.

The move was undertaken with urgency. Zafor followed his parents, who had already returned as soon as there was word of a crackdown. Unfortunately, Zafor and his family were detained at the Bangladesh-India border by Indian border police. He paid them off with 65,000 rupees (880 USD), and he, his wife and their children all went to jail for three days as punishment for attempting an illegal border crossing. “The police asked me why I was crossing into Bangladesh. I told them that I was Rohingya and got scared, that’s why. Then I was freed.” 

After their release, the family was allowed to continue their trip across the border. “After reaching the Bangladesh side of the southwestern border, I paid 40,000 rupees (540 USD) to a broker who brought us into Bangladesh.” With that, Zafor had spent nearly all of his entire savings of 100,000 rupees (1,350 USD) to get back to Bangladesh, and arrived in the camps all but penniless.

Reflecting on an uprooted life

Zafor explains that he and his family’s cross-border moves have always been undertaken in search of freedom, security and a better life. Life has always been precarious, but there were some stable times. “The best time was in Bangladesh before 2012,” Zafor says. “We didn’t ever really find a good life in India or after coming back here and I crave having freedom again. But I don’t plan to go back to India, and anyway I don’t have the money. I used the very last of my savings to get settled once we arrived here in Bangladesh. I have nothing left.” 

Life’s turbulence has affected Zafor’s mental health. In the camp, he finds no way to pursue his aspirations of building a better life for himself and his family. “I am really upset now. Now, I am just waiting to die. In this camp, we have no permission to go out or to work at all. We are suffering a lot. We are trapped here. I really want the right to work.”

Due to the tightening of border controls over the past several years, Zafor says that Rohingya people are “feeling squeezed. We feel our loss of freedom. The Camp-in-Charge tells us to just live on the rations, but we don’t even have a decent vegetable market in this camp. We are suffering a lot. There are water shortages in this camp. Sometimes we have to drink water from the river.”