Bangladesh is hosting 860,000 Rohingya refugees in the camps in Cox’s Bazar (as of May 2020). Most of the refugees arrived after August 2017 when violence and displacement in the Rakhine State of Myanmar became more severe. Since Bangladesh became an independent state in 1971, its border areas with Myanmar have often been defined by the movements of refugees. Bangladesh has experienced at least four major flows of Rohingya refugees: in 1978, 1991-92, 2016 and 2017. The country is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, nor does it have any domestic law specific to refugees. The government of Bangladesh designates Rohingyas as ‘forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals’ rather than ‘refugees’.
The persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar includes strict restrictions of their movements: they need permission to travel to the next township, while travel outside of Rakhine State is rarely permitted. In Bangladesh, as refugees, they are confined within the camp boundaries. They are only allowed to apply for a day pass to visit a hospital or attend a court hearing. Despite the restrictions, many Rohingyas have crossed internal and international boundaries using various strategies. A significant number of Rohingyas travelled overseas, either with fraudulently obtained Bangladeshi passports or by crossing borders irregularly by sea or overland. Over the years, many Rohingyas also became integrated in Bangladesh by acquiring citizenship papers with the assistance of brokers who often collaborate with corrupt officials. Bangladeshi authorities have employed various mechanisms such as: check posts; the designation of ‘special areas’ where there are strict measures against integration; increased surveillance in updating national identity cards and issuing of passports; and restriction on marriage between Rohingyas and Bangladeshis to obstruct Rohingya from acquiring Bangladeshi citizenship documents and travel in unauthorised ways.
While the government continues to increase surveillance in movements and acquiring documents, Rohingya refugees and their facilitators devise new strategies to navigate the borders every day. The navigation of borders is assisted by social and cultural capital and the informal mechanisms of low-level state bureaucracy. For instance, when a vehicle moves out of camp, on the way to Cox’s Bazar town, they are stopped, and the police officers check the passengers. The officers visually scan the passengers and pick up the ones who dress differently than local Bangladeshis, then interrogate in Bengali to test language skill and ask questions on general knowledge about Bangladesh. The Rohingya and locals in the Chittagong region speak a similar dialect, which is, however, different from standard Bengali.
Over time, many refugees, especially the educated ones, have been able to pick up local ways of speaking Bengali and dressing up to ‘act like a citizen’ of Bangladesh. Such strategies are also used when they attempt to obtain a Bangladeshi National ID Card (NID) or passport. Apart from acquiring and using such cultural skills, corrupt officials and informal state machinery help them obtain the documents. While Bangladesh does not offer any formal pathway for local integration, the informal nature of state institutions has allowed many to integrate and become de facto citizens.
However, as the state services in Bangladesh are being digitised, for instance, now there is a requirement for fingerprint and iris scans for the NID and passport. The refugees have also been included in a biometric database with the help of the UNHCR, allowing the government to have access to the biometric information of all refugees in the camp. The introduction of biometric registration was met with some protest by refugees, but the refugees could not reject it, as it was linked to food rations and other services in the camp.
Based on my extensive fieldwork with the Rohingya refugees, government officials and humanitarian professionals, I have explored internal bordering practices and the digital identification of refugees as well as their impact on their ability to travel by navigating legal and bureaucratic restrictions. Being stateless, the Rohingya do not have a passport or legal travel documents to seek asylum in a safe third country. They can either take a dangerous boat journey to Malaysia or fraudulently obtain a Bangladeshi passport by pretending to be a Bangladeshi citizen. I argue that the inclusion of refugees in the biometric database might become the most effective border against their irregular inclusion in Bangladesh and international movement.
Ashraful Azad is a final-year doctoral candidate at the Faculty of Law and Justice and an affiliate of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, University of New South Wales. He completed a BSS and an MSS in International Relations from the University of Chittagong and an MPhil in International Law from Monash University. He is also an assistant professor in the Department of International Relations, University of Chittagong (currently on study leave to pursue his PhD). His experience includes working as a UNHCR protection assistant in 2011-12 and as a research consultant with Equal Rights Trust, UK in 2015, where he wrote a report on the legal status of Rohingya in Bangladesh. Ashraful’s main research interests are critical migration studies, Rohingya refugees, irregular migration, and labour migration in Bangladesh. He also works as a Country of Origin Information Expert for Bangladesh enlisted with the Rights in Exile Programme (IRRI).