Bangladesh authorities are taking inadequate measures to protect Rohingya refugees in camps from surging violence by armed groups and criminal gangs, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should assist refugees by establishing accessible systems to report crimes and promptly investigate complaints.
Human Rights Watch documented 26 cases of violence against Rohingya, including murder, kidnapping, torture, rape and sexual assault, and forced marriage, drawing on interviews with 45 Rohingya refugees between January and April 2023 and supporting evidence including police and medical reports. Victims report facing layers of barriers to police, legal, and medical assistance, with the authorities failing to provide protection, improve security, or prosecute those responsible.
“Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s past pledges to protect Rohingya refugees are now threatened by violent groups and an indifferent justice system,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Bangladesh authorities’ increasingly evident intention to repatriate the Rohingya does not absolve the government of its responsibility to ensure their protection.”
Bangladesh authorities have reported that armed groups killed over 40 Rohingya refugees in the camps in 2022, while at least 48 refugees were killed in the first half of 2023. Rohingya say the totals are much higher. Seven refugees were reportedly killed in three incidents on July 6 and 7, including a sub-majhi (camp community leader) and alleged members of militant groups.
Many of those killed have been Rohingya community leaders or their family members. Scores of refugees have been abducted for ransom and threatened or tortured. Several Rohingya reported the involvement of armed groups in sexual assault, forced marriage, and child recruitment.
Refugees describe an environment of escalating brutality and fear, with growing concerns of being targeted by criminal gangs and claimed affiliates of Islamist armed groups. “Every night we hear gunshots,” a Rohingya refugee told Human Rights Watch. “When the shooting starts, we hug each other tightly and wait, fearing it is our turn next.”
Victims of attacks named members of various groups as being responsible, including the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), Munna gang, Islami Mahaz, and several others. The Bangladesh Ministry of Defence reported that at least 11 armed groups are operating in the camps. Several criminal gangs involved in drug smuggling and human trafficking have been vying for greater control in the camps, with the refugees caught in the middle. Activists, educated people, and majhis are common targets, which has had a chilling effect on Rohingya civil society. At least 16 majhis were killed in the first half of 2023.
No criminal justice system is available to the refugees; they cannot go to the police to file a complaint. Instead, they must approach Bangladesh administrative authorities or security forces in the camps. Several families said they could not get the required approval from the camp-in-charge (CiC), a Bangladesh official, to file a report with the police. Others said they obtained permission to bring a complaint to the Armed Police Battalion (APBn) but could go no further, as the force has no civilian investigative function. Refugees who did manage to register their case at a local police station said there was no follow-up, often because they could not cover the bribes and legal fees demanded.
Several majhis who were killed or attacked over the past year were targeted by alleged ARSA members who considered them informants for Bangladesh authorities. Majhis said that authorities forced them to take part in nighttime watches, to join police raids, and to identify members of armed groups, at times in front of the suspects. Family members of killed majhis said they had previously requested help from the camp-in-charge and APBn, some even providing lists of those who were threatening them, but were ignored.
Of the 26 cases Human Rights Watch documented, only 3 led to arrests. Most victims interviewed said that gangs or armed groups threatened and harassed them after the initial assault, intimidating them into staying silent.
Many victims alleged collusion between security force officers and criminals. The APBn, which has overseen security in the camps since July 2020, is itself responsible for widespread abuses against refugees, including extortion, arbitrary arrests, and harassment.
The police response to the growing violence has been marked by abuse, with indiscriminate raids and violent crackdowns. Refugees allege that APBn corruption has allowed criminal activity to proliferate, while Rohingya not responsible for crimes have ended up under arrest.
“There were so many killings that happened in broad daylight, near the APBn police camp,” said an international aid agency volunteer. “Even after hearing the gunshots, they took no action. When there are killings or violence, the police arrest innocent people, not the real perpetrators. The real ones are given license to do the same thing again.”
Rohingya who sought protection were told to move to other shelters or camps, without any support. Some parents said they sent their children to Malaysia, risking dangerous boat journeys, to protect them from attack. Victims and their family members described ongoing fear and injuries following the attacks, without access to adequate physical and mental health care.
Bangladesh authorities contend that repatriation of Rohingya to Myanmar is the only solution for the dangerous situation in the refugee settlements. However, conditions for the safe, sustainable, and dignified return of Rohingya do not currently exist. The Bangladesh government should develop and carry out a rights-respecting security policy to protect the camp population, in consultation with the refugees and United Nations agencies, including the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), UN Women, and the UN Population Fund.
UN agencies should task and train personnel to receive complaints filed by refugees, with streamlined, confidential reporting and referral procedures for legal, medical, and protection services, including survivor-centered care. Resources such as safe houses and UNHCR’s protection hotline should be expanded.
Donor governments and UN agencies should press Bangladesh to lift the bureaucratic barriers to accessing local police and courts, as well as all restrictions on access to education and livelihoods to reduce illegal and dangerous economic activity in the camps. The authorities should also end APBn’s use of refugees for compulsory night patrols.
“The Bangladesh government needs to protect Rohingya refugees, rather than let criminal elements drive them out,” Ganguly said. “Donor governments should be helping to meet the humanitarian needs of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh while pressing for the establishment of rights-respecting civilian rule in Myanmar so they can one day go home.”
Violence and Denial of Justice, Protection for Rohingya Refugees
About one million ethnic Rohingya refugees are in Bangladesh, living in the sprawling, overcrowded camps in Cox’s Bazar or the isolated silt island of Bhasan Char. Most of them fled Myanmar military atrocities in 2017. The violence in the camps has escalated amid Bangladesh’s increasingly coercive restrictions on livelihoods, movement, and education in the camps, including harassment at checkpoints and closing community schools and markets.
In September 2021, the community leader and rights advocate Mohib Ullah was shot and killed in Kutupalong camp after receiving death threats that the authorities failed to address. “The armed groups target activists because of power,” an activist said. “They want the camps under their control. If activists and educated people become stronger leaders, common Rohingya won’t fear the armed groups anymore, and they’ll lose their control and their profits.”
Refugees said that armed groups recruit boys age 13 and older with bribes. “Whenever armed group members see youth wandering around, they’ll approach them and say, ‘Look, I can give you something that’ll make you powerful,’” an activist said. “And they give them guns and sometimes money too.”
Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh lack recognized legal status, which puts them on a precarious footing under domestic law and makes them vulnerable to rights violations. The Bangladesh government has an obligation under international human rights law to ensure that the rights of everyone in its jurisdiction, including refugees, are protected, and to investigate allegations of abuses and hold those responsible to account.
In one of the three documented cases that led to arrests, in which a woman was stabbed, her family said that the police freed the suspect after he paid a bribe. In another, the police detained three people who were not involved in the killing, the victim’s family said. In the third, the police detained several men implicated in the murder, but the family has been threatened by others they say were involved but not arrested.
By mid-year, the 2023 UN Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya humanitarian crisis had received only a quarter of the required US$876 million in donor contributions. The funding shortfall has led the World Food Programme to cut Rohingya food rations by a third since February, down from $12 to only $8 a month, increasing desperation and the spread of illicit activities like drug smuggling, extortion, and human trafficking in the camps. Donors, including the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, and Australia, should act to meet the massive protection needs of the Rohingya refugee population.
Names and other details have been withheld to protect the refugees’ identities.
Human Rights Watch documented nine killings of majhis, who have been major targets of armed groups and criminal gangs.
“These armed groups decided to increase violence in the camps, killing people, targeting majhis and activists, to create an environment of fear so that they can operate in the camps without interruption by Bangladesh authorities,” an activist said. “They are recruiting a lot of children and teenagers, forcing them to join or offering money.”
Several family members said that their majhi relatives were killed after the authorities insisted that they identify members of armed groups. The brother of a head majhi who was killed in February said his brother had tried to resign after being previously abducted and tortured, but authorities refused to let him step down:
He became a target after the government used him against ARSA. He had to comply with orders of the CiCs and the law enforcers in the camp. ARSA also wanted to control him because he was a head majhi and they wanted him to allow their free movement and inform them abouts raids. He wanted to resign from his position as head majhi since it was risky, but Bangladesh authorities wouldn’t let him.
Family members said that the majhis are caught between the authorities and the armed groups. The widow of a majhi who was killed in March said:
The authorities forced the majhis to give all sorts of information, warning that they would otherwise be sent to jail as ARSA collaborators. My husband told me he was so confused about what to do. If the majhis didn’t help the authorities, they became ARSA’s collaborator, but when they went against ARSA, they became a collaborator of the authorities.
Not one of the eight family members who said that they had reported threats to Bangladesh authorities were granted protection. The brother of a slain majhi said that authorities had insisted on his help in cracking down on ARSA, then denied his pleas for protection:
The authorities always try to show that they have a zero-tolerance policy against ARSA. But with ARSA committing crimes and killings in the camps, it shows that in reality, the authorities are putting the majhis in danger, while the criminals remain untouched. [My brother] was tasked by APBn to mobilize the majhis under him to inform police about ARSA whereabouts. Just one week later, he was killed.
The widow of a slain sub-majhi said:
Before he was killed, [my husband] submitted a list of people who threatened him to the CiC and APBn, but they didn’t do anything. If they had, he could have been saved. The APBn didn’t take any measures to help, they just asked him to put more effort into guarding the camp at night.
Several majhis attempted to go into hiding but were required to continue assisting camp authorities in monitoring duties. Another widow said:
[My husband] was facing threats, so he didn’t come to the shelter that much. But at that time, it was mandatory for the majhis to guard the camps at night, as instructed by APBn. That night after he was on duty, he went back to our shelter at around 4 a.m. Around 20 to 30 armed men surrounded the shelter and opened fire. He tried to flee but was caught. He was shouting and begging for his life. I heard two gunshots, then he tried to flee, then they shot again.
Armed groups have also killed family members of people considered informants as retribution. One refugee said that ARSA members killed his younger brother in March due to the interviewee’s work with police:
When ARSA started killing respected people in the community and demanding ransom, I began working with law enforcement to identify ARSA members. I became a target, but I never thought they would kill my brother. The day he was abducted, I told the police and military. I know I am responsible for my brother’s death. But I will keep helping the police whenever I can because ARSA is criminal. They kill people, and they should be arrested.
Others have been targeted because of gang rivalries. An alleged ARSA supporter was reportedly shot and stabbed in April by members of the militant group Islami Mahaz. He died the next day. A family member said that Islami Mahaz has been allowed to operate freely in their camp because it helps security forces identify ARSA members. “The police never came to help me even after they heard the shooting,” the family member said. “I didn’t file any case since there will be no justice. The group operates freely in the camp. They are on good terms with the police.”
In all but one case, those responsible for the killings remain free in the camps, according to the victims’ families. Several family members said that they declined to file a case out of fear of collusion between police and the killers, or they withdrew their complaint due to threats. “ARSA had a good relationship with APBn at that time,” one widow said. She had tried informing police about suspects in her husband’s killing but said the case has not moved forward. “ARSA members were having tea with APBn at the shops. They were even hanging out in several places with the accused. I was also threatened to drop the case.”
Many families who have been threatened have been forced to relocate, particularly those who tried to pursue justice. Some have been unable to move to another camp because they lack the resources or support they need.
“My husband used to work for the CiC and the authorities,” a widow said. “If they wanted, they could have provided protection to him. They never did, so he was killed. Now I can’t live in my shelter. If I ask the CiC for help, they say there’s nothing they can do.”
She left the camp after her husband’s death, but still lives in fear:
I feel afraid that the killers could come again. I have five children. They also live in fear. Every night I used to hear gunshots. I never realized they would target my husband. My husband used to maintain relationships with everyone because he feared for his life.
One woman said she has been unable to return home due to constant death threats. As a community leader, she had faced years of threats and violence from gangs, culminating in a recent attack that left her sister dead and her and her daughter seriously injured. She said they have ongoing medical issues from the shooting: “My daughter and I aren’t getting proper treatment, but we can’t afford a private hospital. We are refugees, but we are human. The police don’t even treat us like humans. They think of us as garbage, so even if our people are killed, they don’t care.”
Abduction, Torture, Extortion
Armed groups in the camps have been increasingly kidnapping Rohingya refugees for ransom, forced recruitment, or human trafficking. Human Rights Watch documented 10 cases of abduction.
Six victims described being tortured during their abductions. “I was fed only bread and water,” said a teenage boy who was kidnapped in February and held for a week, until his family paid ransom. “They beat me with thick electric wire. They tried to kill me and threatened they were going to. I was so scared. One of them tried to rape me. I still feel so worried when I think about that.”
“I was confined for four days,” another refugee said of his March abduction. “I was blindfolded and my hands and legs were tied with a rope. I was given very little food and water. I was beaten and asked how much money my mother could pay. I felt so helpless.” He said he was tortured so badly he could not walk.
Family members said they received little to no help after reporting missing relatives to the authorities. “We didn’t get much cooperation from the police,” a victim’s brother said. “They only said they were trying to find the mobile phone number the ransom call had been made on, which we also had. They charged us two bribes for the mobile number. They didn’t conduct any operation on their own to rescue my brother.”
Two families said that APBn took credit for rescuing their family members after providing little to no support. “After my brother was rescued, APBn interviewed him and took photos with him to claim credit for rescuing him,” a victim’s brother said. “We were so shocked seeing their circus. We had been continually asking for help from the police to rescue our brother, but they didn’t do anything. We had to pay a huge ransom and rescue him ourselves.”
The mother of a victim who had been abducted and tortured said:
The APBn had done nothing, but they came to take credit for rescuing my son. We took him to a hospital nearby where he was treated for three days. I tried to contact the police and UNHCR protection team to get justice. But they both said that if I didn’t recognize the kidnapper, there was nothing to do. I gave them the kidnapper’s phone number. No case was filed. The police didn’t care about filing a case. Maybe they expected that he would come back as a body, not alive. If they wanted to, they could have rescued him.
Majhis and community leaders have also been targeted for abduction by ARSA. A teacher said alleged ARSA members had abducted and severely beaten him three times because he opposed their criminal activities, most recently in March:
I was blindfolded, and they put a cloth in my mouth so I couldn’t talk or shout. They accused me of helping the police against ARSA. They started beating me with rods and logs on my back, my legs. They asked me for my last wish, like they were going to kill me. I heard them talking about how they would disappear my body after killing me. They said they would hide my body in the latrine like they did to others.
The teacher said they kept torturing him and interrogating him about why he did not leave the camp when they told him to. He stayed, he said, because of his family and students.
“The problem is Bangladesh authorities can’t ensure our protection,” said a majhi who was abducted in 2022 and threatened with death if he continued to provide information to security forces. “Authorities take all this information from us but then watch us being killed by ARSA for helping them. We are being targeted by the militant groups and the authorities. So many of my colleagues are being killed.”
A gang abducted a former majhi in March and beat him with rods until his family paid 100,000 taka (US$925) for his release. His family never reported the attack out of fear of the attackers’ ties to the police. “The group is based in our camp,” one of his sons said. “They move around freely and have a good relationship with the authorities, so we never dared to complain to the police about the abduction.”
Several family members said that the accused roam freely in the camp, while the police ignore the families’ reports. Others said they did not attempt to file complaints due to threats or because they did not expect a fair investigation. Refugees who were tortured said they feel constant fear, with no access to mental health services in the camps.
“I still have scars from the torture on my back, legs, everywhere,” said one man who had to leave his home due to ongoing harassment. “Since the kidnapping, I don’t live in my shelter. I refused to file a case because I was worried about my family’s safety, and I didn’t have money to fight the case anyway. ARSA members keep threatening my family even though I didn’t file a case. Their leader recently called me and threatened to kill my brothers.”
Sexual Violence and Forced Marriage
In early 2023, a woman found her 6-year-old daughter unconscious in front of their shelter. She took her to the hospital, where a doctor examined her and found she had been raped, according to medical documents reviewed by Human Rights Watch. The girl’s mother tried to file a report with both APBn and the camp-in-charge but struggled to get assistance:
The APBn told me that since it’s a “sensitive case,” I could only file a complaint with the CiC. I was determined to take legal action, but I need the support of the CiC or Bangladesh authorities to do so, since I’m Rohingya. It’s not like I can just go to the police station like Bangladeshi people can. But unfortunately, the CiC didn’t give me permission or even meet me again for another five days.
When she was eventually able to meet with the local police, the officers accused her of falsifying medical documents to file the case. She began receiving threats from the man that her daughter had identified as the attacker and had to move her family to another camp, without any support to build a new shelter. “I haven’t been able to take any legal action against those people because the authorities don’t want to ensure our justice,” she said. “They have little sympathy for what happened to my daughter.”
She spent 400,000 taka ($3,700) to send two of her older daughters to Malaysia for their safety. “My [6-year-old] daughter is living in constant fear,” she said.
Several women or their family members described armed group members sexually assaulting married women and girls whose husbands had gone to Malaysia for work. One woman whose husband had left the camps was reportedly raped by a member of a militant group, who filmed the attack and posted it on social media.
Several Rohingya refugees reported cases of forced marriage to Human Rights Watch. “It is really dangerous to live in the camps, especially with girls in your house,” one mother said.
Alleged militants have threatened to kill family members who resisted forced marriage of their young daughters. One 16-year-old said that she was forced to marry an ARSA member when she was only 14. Alleged ARSA members had abducted her father and brother, threatening to kill them unless they agreed to her marrying a 28-year-old man who already had another wife. The two men were only released after they consented to the marriage. The girl reported that the man she was forced to marry subjects her to physical violence.