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Bangladesh's Rohingya refugees seek justice for police abuse

Bangladeshi police have been accused of carrying out violence against women in the Rohingya refugee camps

Bangladeshi police have been accused of carrying out violence against women in the Rohingya refugee camps

Around a million Rohingya refugees are living in huts made of bamboo and plastic in Cox's Bazar, the world's largest refugee camp in southern Bangladesh.

Most have fled ethnic and religious persecution in neighboring Myanmar.

Recent years have seen the security situation in the camps deteriorate, with crimes including sexual assault, abduction, extortion, and murder becoming daily occurrences.

The camps are rife with criminal gangs, as well as rebel Rohingya groups.

Camp residents have also complained about abuses carried out by local law enforcement agencies.

Camp security forces accused of rape

A 22-year old Rohingya woman living in the Balukhali refugee camp at Cox's Bazar said that a police officer from the Bangladesh Armed Police Battalion (APBn), who was part of a security deployment in the camp, had been following her for several months.

She said that on the night of January 7, he entered her house under the pretext of a search operation and attempted to rape her. She was rescued by neighbors after she cried for help.

The officer, along with two of his associates, left the scene when other refugees gathered to stop them.

The husband of the 22-year old woman told DW that they have been receiving threats ever since they filed a verbal complaint to the Camp in Charge (CiC) about the incident.

"We have been threatened to withdraw the complaint. Otherwise, they said they would arrest me on false charges and put me behind bars," he told DW over the phone from the refugee camp.

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) also mentioned the incident in its recent report titled: Bangladesh police abuses rampant in Rohingya camps. It urged the Bangladeshi authorities to "promptly and impartially investigate the matter."

"To provide genuine security in the camps, they need to take refugees' accusations of police violence seriously," it added.

Bangladesh's refugee commissioner in Cox's Bazar, Mohammed Mizanur Rahman, admitted to DW that he only learned about the alleged attempted rape incident from a newspaper article and said that he had asked the authorities to investigate the matter.

"I have forwarded it to a deputy inspector general of APBn to investigate the matter. I haven't heard anything back from him yet. But no one complained to me nor my CiC of the camp level. So I can't go deep into it," he told DW.

"I believe no Bangladeshi government employee could do such an incident. However, if someone does it, the culprit must be brought to justice," he added.

Refugees find it difficult to get legal support

Several refugees told DW that they were not able to file formal complaints or legal action in local police stations about alleged incidents of rape and murder by APBn members.

Abdul Gafur, a Rohingya refugee who has been staying at the Kutupalong camp for 34 years, told DW that his 17-year old daughter's dead body was recovered from a nearby hotel on the morning of August 2, 2022.

"My daughter was raped and killed on the night before. There were signs of torture all over her body. There were bite marks on her back, her lips were burned with lit cigarettes, and her chest was completely broken," Gafur told DW.

He alleged that three APBn members had abducted his daughter from a garment factory of a nearby refugee camp where she had been working as a volunteer and "raped and killed her."

However, Gafur was not able to file a formal police complaint or court case about the incident.

"We need permission from the CiC to go outside the camps. But, I was not allowed to go to Cox's Bazar court to file a case against the perpetrators when the local police station refused to take my case as I named the APBn," he told DW.

Perpetrators remain unpunished

A 27-year-old Rohingya woman, who has lived her hold life in a refugee camp, told DW that APBn members attempted to rape her last year when she was returning home from a hospital at night.

"They ripped off my clothes and touched my chest while trying to rape me near a police checkpoint," she told DW.

The mother of three kids said that she was taken to a police station from there and was tortured until she fell unconscious.

"I was later arrested on false charges and sent to jail for three months," she told DW.

"APBn members harass any women they find attractive in the camps. They improperly touch their cheeks and chests in streets and go to their houses at night to sexually abuse them," she added.

Another 18-year old Rohingya woman told DW that APBn members raped her in her hut at a refugee camp two years ago under the pretext of arresting her brother, and she has yet to receive justice.

"I was raped several times. I feel insecure in the camp. I urge the Bangladesh government to ensure our safety," the woman told DW.

All of the refugees said they had been unable to file formal police complaints or court cases to seek justice and that in every case the perpetrators had remained unpunished.

Victims lack confidence to open up

Rezaur Rahman Lenin, a rights activist who divides his time between Dhaka and Cox's Bazar, said that the allegations of criminal activities involving police officers "are shocking but not surprising at all."

He pointed out that the prevalence of the rape incidents is difficult to measure as many women are fearful of opening up due to a culture of impunity at the camps.

"It is hard to identify any credible available statistics where law enforcement agency officials are involved in the sexual assaults of Rohingya women due to a lack of standard reporting processes and practices inside the camps and a scary environment," Lenin told DW.

"Victims often are worried about not being able to provide enough proof, further victimization after lodging complaints, as well as judicial harassment and so on. These factors keep them away from seeking justice," he added.

Refugee chief insists legal support is available

Refugee commissioner Rahman told DW that there are several ways to file complaints, and that they are available to refugees.

"Many organizations help refugees to file cases. Bangladesh has permitted them to do so. UNHCR, as a protection agency, works there along with its partners. Bangladeshi legal aid organizations, including BLAST, are active in the camps. They provide legal support to the refugees," he told DW.

He also pointed out that the police force deployed in the camps is well-trained to deal with refugees.

However, the refugees claimed that the reality on the ground is different, as reporting an incident to those organizations rarely produces any results.

Rights group demands more action

HRW noted in its report that Bangladeshi police have indeed received training to strengthen gender-responsive policing.

"But unless the government and donors to these programs ensure that security forces responsible for abuses are credibly prosecuted, sexual assault and other serious crimes will persist," the rights organization said.

Rohingya researcher Lenin thinks that the refugees remain vulnerable in his country due to their unrecognized legal status. Most of them are not registered as refugees in Bangladesh.

"Nevertheless, the government of Bangladesh is obligated to protect the rights of all people under its control, including refugees, according to international human rights law," he told DW.

"It must look into claims of violations by law enforcement agencies and hold those involved accountable."

Edited by: Alex Berry