Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Mar 15, 2019

Statelessness, restricted refugee camps and lack of accessibility to basic services have acted as strong push factors for Rohingyas to take up ‘Yaba’ drug trafficking in Bangladesh.

Drug trafficking and Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

In 2018, a major attack on drug trade, especially of ‘Yaba’, popularly known as the madness drug, took place in Bangladesh where a record 53 million methamphetamine pills were seized. Nearly 300 suspected drug dealers were killed out of which 40 were from Teknaf area near to Rohingya camps. Some 25,000 were arrested, out of which few were Rohingyas. As Reuters reports, Bangladesh has become a big market for traffickers who source the drug from factories in lawless northeastern Myanmar. Why and how these stateless people are getting involved in this crime needs to be looked at.

Bangladesh currently harbours more than 900,000 Rohingyas in their overpopulated camps. Already cramped and burdened, the living conditions in these camps are appalling. Though the Rohingyas are finally getting a chance to live in a settlement, some restrictions on procuring legitimate work is paving way for new illegal ones.

The men, women and children, who travelled from their war torn villages, arrived at this side of the border either without their spouses or parents or children who they lost in the brutal military crackdown. While some could carry money or clothes, most couldn’t since their villages were lit on fire. Under such harsh physical and mental conditions, they are settled in the overpopulated camps where there are restrictions to work outside the camp areas. The relief they receive from the humanitarian organisations are in kind. They are only allowed to work in occupations created by the UNHCR organisations within the camps but the money they earn in exchange is meagre in order to support themselves and their families. The food supply remain limited and thus, having extra money helps to procure better ration and other basic necessities.

Though education programme runs within the camps, according to the JRP Report 2019, 97% of youth and adolescents lack access to quality education or learning opportunities.

Thus, most of the youth in the camps sit idle engaging into fights and violence within and around the camps areas. Perpetually, these helpless individuals fall easy preys to the drug traffickers.

They are paid according to the size of ‘Yaba’ consignments. For instance, they earn 10,000 taka for transporting 5,000 pills to Dhaka and other urban centres which is extremely lucrative in nature. Hence, considerable numbers of Rohingyas act as agents in order to deliver ‘Yaba’ to the drug peddlers.

< style="color: #333333">Also, for many Rohingyas, engagement with drug peddlers offers an easy exit from Myanmar due to the Naf River running between the two nations.

While the derelict conditions of the Rohingyas in the camps of Bangladesh are creating pathways for entry of drugs, rising demand for ‘Yaba’ are coming up as strong pull factor as well.

Several briefs published by the Reuters during 2017-18 confirm that the demand for ‘Yaba’ has increased drastically. It has affected people from several quarters, from house-wives to college students, to professionals. The camps have proven to be the easy prey.

Considering the larger ambit, Bangladesh is used as a transit nation for drugs produced in the Golden Triangle (Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand).

The rising trend of 'synthetic and party' drugs, especially ‘Yaba’, being trafficked across the porous border is a concern for Bangladesh.

The Teknaf town, located in Cox’s Bazar, has gained a lot of limelight for being the notorious passageway for transporting drugs to Bangladesh where currently 15 syndicates are operating to smuggle the drug to the capital. The Rohingyas reside at the very heart of this gateway.

According to the stories published in various media reports, the smugglers visit deep within the camps or deserted forest or are fellow Rohingya neighbours from whom the package is received. Later the couriers travel to major cities in Bangladesh in public transport to deliver the package by passing the security checks by walking that stretch. Traffickers prefer using Rohingya women or children to act as the couriers since they remain lesser suspects. Thus, unsuspected women cross the security checks carrying their children along with the drugs. The drugs are even carried in one’s footwear, undergarments, belt, rectum and abdomen.

Thus, the traffickers are currently utilising the camps as a major marketplace and store house for ‘Yaba’. Not only is the drug coming in, but also the associated know-how comes along with it.

Though the law enforcing agency understands the gravity of the situation, it is at times helpless in order to address this issue.

There has been much debate regarding the reason for the continuation of the crime. Loophole in the Narcotics Control Act 1990 may be one of the major reasons facilitating the process for continuation.  For one, ‘Yaba’ did not feature as a drug of concern in the previous Act, probably since this drug has gained its popularity only in recent years. Also, earlier the drug dealers could get easy bails and thus were not detained for long. In December 2018, the government has enacted a Narcotics Control Act 2018 to strengthen the previous Act.

This Act imposes punishment for transporting, trading, storing, producing, processing, applying, and using 200 grams of ‘Yaba’, or its principal ingredient amphetamine, as death penalty or life-term imprisonment, restricting their release from punishment for such crimes.

Whether this Act will bring about the desired effect is yet to be seen.

The last month’s surrender programme at Teknaf town saw 102 drug mafias and peddlers surrender  to the authorities. Though this is a major breakthrough, one has to take into account that many are still in the hiding and this puts the Rohingyas directly in charge to carry forward this business. It remains, however, unsure how far the poor Rohingyas  are aware of the consequence and gravity of the situation. Their status as refugees puts them in deeper trouble since they have no rights and thus the standard of protection falls in jeopardy.

Statelessness, restricted refugee camps and lack of accessibility to basic services have acted as strong push factors for Rohingyas to take up ‘Yaba’ drug trafficking in Bangladesh.

From the humanitarian perspective, several UN reports have spoken about international attention towards human rights violations of Rohingyas. The international aid working with these groups are focussing on improving the basic livelihood of people which they are hoping may help reduce crimes within camps. But many a times, these aid agencies are more to do with reporting and self-glorifications. Funds are either mishandled or misused. On top of this, the fizzled repatriation efforts by the governments and international community have equally thwarted security attempts. Thus, integrated solutions either at a nation or regional level only gets procrastinated which shows the lack of urgency to address this issue. It is important to understand that social media can only generate mass attention whereas real solutions need to emerge from within the formal policy framework for rehabilitating these stateless people.

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Sreeparna Banerjee

Sreeparna Banerjee

Sreeparna Banerjee is a Junior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation Kolkata with the Strategic Studies Programme.

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