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A number of Rohingya refugees were killed when they tried to escape a series of fires that ripped through refugee camps in March 2021, only to be trapped by recently installed fences. Activists are now calling for these fences to be removed. They say they are just the latest in a series of policies implemented by the Bangladeshi government aimed at making things so difficult for the refugees that they leave.

At least 15 people were killed in March and April 2021 when a series of fires swept the sprawling refugee camps near Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh. Many of the victims were unable to escape due to the barbed wire fences enclosing the camp.

The Bangladeshi government started putting in the fences in late 2019, cutting off the camps that are home to 800,000 members of the Rohingya ethnic minority, who fled persecution in their native Myanmar in 2017.

According to our Observers, these fences are meant to prevent the Rohingya from moving outside of their camps, without outright banning it.

The Remove The Fence campaign has been calling for the removal of these fences and posting photos and videos documenting the danger they pose.

‘We’re like second class humans that should be hidden’

Khin Maung lives in Camp 13 in Ukhia, Cox’s Bazar and is the founder of the Rohingya Youth Association. He says that these fences shattered the lives of refugees when they started to appear in late 2019.

We can’t move around freely anymore. When the fires broke out, people tried to flee and, finding themselves trapped, hurt themselves trying to get over them. Everything is becoming more complicated. There are these fences and, at the camp entrance, there is a gate with guards, like a checkpoint.

The idea is to cut us off from the rest of society. We feel like second class humans who must be hidden. We are thankful to the Bangladeshi government for having welcomed us in 2017 but we want to be able to continue to enjoy our liberty.

Barbed wire surrounds Camp 27 in Jadimura, Cox’s Bazar. This photo was taken on April 30, 2021. © Khin Maung © Khin Maung

Several NGOs like Human Rights Watch also denounced the installation of these fences. HRW called the fences “discriminatory” and said that they “infringe[d] upon basic rights and humanitarian needs”.

“They want to push them to leave”

Shafiur Rahman is a British-Bangladeshi journalist based in London. He has been working on the issue of Rohingya refugees for several years.

In 2019, the Bangladeshi government adopted a series of extremely restrictive measures aimed at refugees. They put up these fences, but there were also internet blackouts. SIM cards were confiscated. Moreover, the camp on Bashan Char was opened [Editor’s note: More than 10,000 Rohingya were sent to live at this controversial site located on a flood plain].

These fences were set up on the camp around the island of Bashan Char. 

Moreover, the fences don’t just trap all the refugees together in one big complex. They also separate the camps from one another. They are supposed to be done with the installation in June 2021.

The fences were already an issue, even before the fires. Some people found themselves outside of the boundaries and had to move. It takes much longer to get anywhere because you have to go around them. Camp residents find themselves at the mercy of the guards who sometimes ask for bribes or inspect their telephones. The fences have also caused a lot of problems for elderly people and pregnant women who are trying to get to healthcare centres.

The children, who were used to playing outside, now play right next to the fence, which was poorly installed in some places. Sometimes, they hurt themselves.

Rohingya refugees fight to remove deadly barbed wire at Bangladesh camps
Barbed wire encloses Camp 27 in Jadimura, Cox’s Bazar. The photo was taken on April 30, 2021. © Khin Maung

The government justified the decision to build fences by claiming it was for the refugees’ safety but, clearly, the fences actually put the refugees at risk. They didn’t consult with the Rohingya refugee community nor with most of the NGOs on the ground. They need to build trust within the community and respond to their basic needs instead of treating these people like criminals.

In my opinion, the government did this for political reasons, as a response to the growing hostility towards the Rohingya within the Bangladeshi population. They want to make them uncomfortable and push them to leave, even though they know that it is impossible for them to return to Myanmar right now.

Over the past few years, Bangladesh has been trying to broker a deal with Myanmar so the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh will return to their country of origin. The last attempt was halted when Myanmar soldiers took power in a coup on February 1, making the security situation in Myanmar more unstable.

According to the United Nations, the Rohingyas are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.

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