Drugs, violence threaten Rohingya men in world's largest refugee camp

Sitting near a tea stall smoking and drinking sugary milk tea, a group of young Rohingya men are bored and worried about their futures in the world's largest refugee settlement.

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Rohingya refugees sit in a temporary shop at Balukhali refugee camp

Sitting near a tea stall smoking and drinking sugary milk tea, a group of young Rohingya men are bored and worried about their futures in the world's largest refugee settlement.

Having fled over the Myanmar border into southeast Bangladesh with about 730,000 mainly Muslim Rohingya from August 2017, the men and their families spent the first year battling to survive, building shelters and readjusting to refugee life.

But 18 months on, with the camps more orderly, the men who would have been running households at home find their roles diminished, and the uncertainty is driving increasing numbers to drugs and violence, according to other Rohingya and aid workers.

"It's not as though we want to sit here in the afternoons," Jahid Hasan, 16, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on a dusty main road running through Balukhali camp as stray dogs and scrawny cows wandered past.

"It's not easy to get work in the camps. There are schools for children, but not for us. We are tense about our future, but there's not a lot we can do."

Under Bangladesh government rules, only children aged up to 14 can attend learning centers to study English, Burmese, maths, and life skills, while aid agencies hire adults on cash-for-work projects in the 34 camps making up the refugee settlement.

But this has left a void for teenagers like Hasan living among the 900,000 plus Rohingya now in the camps, who complain that they struggle to find ways to fill their days.

"Those boys don't go to school and moreover they get involved in drugs like yaba," said Al Morijam, 35, a mother of two, referring to the highly addictive synthetic drug produced in Myanmar that is more popular than heroin in parts of Asia.

"Yaba is everywhere in the camps and weed is common. We need the army to come and stop them selling yaba," said Morijam, who sits on a women's committee set up by the International Organization for Migrants (IOM) to help women's views be heard.


Mohammad Hussain, aged about 24 and one of few Rohingya in the camps to have attended university, said he was concerned that many youngsters were "losing their character" because of a lack of guidance and education.

"This could destroy the future generation of our country," said Hussain, who was in his second year at Myanmar's Sittwe University in August 2017 when thousands of Muslim Rohingya started to flee an offensive by the Myanmar military.

Myanmar has denied all accusations, saying its military launched a counter-insurgency operation after attacks on security posts by Muslim terrorists.

In a recent report the Inter-Sector Coordination Group (ISCG), set up to coordinate work between humanitarian groups at the camps, said inadequate services for adolescents aged between 15 to 24 remained a major issue.

While a learning framework for adolescents is on the cards, it was still not certain when this would begin in the camps.

Various aid agencies have expressed concerns that this left teenagers particularly vulnerable to child marriage, child labor, human trafficking, abuse, and exploitation.

Across the camps, teenage boys can be seen playing football and volleyball on flattened areas of ground, while aid agencies have set up youth clubs, community centers, and art projects to get them involved.

A Victory Cup football match was held in December between players in two camps watched by a crowd of about 4,000, organized by government officials in charge of the camps.

"The reason they are getting involved in drugs is that they have nothing to do. We need more events," said Shamimul Huq Pavel, a camp-in-charge officer at Kutupalong, the largest refugee camp.

"Once they have jobs and education, this will decrease."

He expected more focus on cash-incentive projects in the coming months to make the Rohingya less dependent on aid.
IOM's head of mental health and psychosocial support, Olga Rebolledo, said as time went on they were witnessing increasing levels of domestic abuse and violence generally.

"Cramped shelters, the lack of opportunities and food shortages, is all starting to heat up," Rebolledo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"This also comes on top of the lack of recognition, of not being citizens anywhere, which makes people feel trapped and unable to move because they are not accepted by anyone."

In a bid to tackle domestic abuse, projects for spreading awareness among Rohingya men and boys have begun in the camps. One such project is run by BRAC, Bangladesh's largest NGO.

"Many men who were involved in domestic violence have come to us. We have also tried to spread awareness in tea stalls and other areas where men generally gather," said Sheikh Jahidur Rahman, a BRAC project coordinator.

"We use Islamic sayings to try to change their minds. We explain to them that gender violence is a crime according to Islam and that it shouldn't take place."

One of the participants of the programme, 19-year-old Mohammad Nasih, said he had seen his sister suffer at the hands of her husband and he wanted to be at the forefront of this change.

"We don't get paid to come and attend these sessions, but we still do and that's because we have felt the pain of our own sisters," he said, recalling the pain that his family had gone through due to his own sister's suffering.

"Outside the camps, everyone talks about how the men of our community are involved in these bad things. That's not always true. I am here to change that mindset."

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