COX’S BAZAR, BANGLADESH - It was an early morning in January 2018 when Sadat, an accountant, received the news he had waited years to hear. The Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, southern Bangladesh, had started to wake. While Muslim Rohingya men milled in front of tea stands, anxiously waiting for their first hit of caffeine, children skipped to school, carrying oversized book bags. The sound of bicycle bells filled the narrow passageways and stairways dug into the surrounding clay hills.
Wrapping his chequered sarong around his waist, Sadat sluggishly walked from the tent he shared with his wife and four children towards the communal well. Holding an orange-coloured jug, he carefully poured water onto his hands.
A Rohingya refugee cuts steps at Balukhali refugee camp in October 2017 (AFP)
Life was slow for the refugees - and it was getting to the 50-year old. The stench of the overflowing communal toilets. The cramped conditions of the camp, which housed nearly 20,000 Rohingya. The waiting around, as the government in Dhaka and the international community debate what to do with the 700,000 refugees who lived in the area. “One day feels like a hundred inside the camps,” Sadat later told Middle East Eye.
Entering Balukhali is easy but leaving it is hard. Dozens of military checkpoints are stationed on the roads leading up to the camp as well as on the approaches to Kutupalong, another nearby refugee centre, to ensure that the Rohingya do not flee.
Sadat, who asked we use a pseudonym amid fears for his safety, had escaped from Rakhine state in Myanmar in 2017, after the Burmese army terrorised his village, burned his home and raped relatives in front of him. He shuddered at the memories of his past life and of his life now.
A resident of the Balukhali refugee camp washes his feet from a standpipe in February 2018 (Kaamil Ahmed/MEE)
Then, as he walked back to the tent, his phone began to ring. Sadat did not know the number - but he knew the voice. Dropping everything, he ran up the sandbag steps, past the aid distribution centres and towards the camp entrance.
There he spotted a figure, tall, dark and shaggy: Abu Rashid, the 25-year-old son he had not seen since 2012, had finally arrived in Bangladesh.
Not from Myanmar, but from Saudi Arabia.
The kingdom opens its doors
Rashid is one of the thousands of Rohingya who have arrived in the camps of Bangladesh from the Gulf during the last year. Their stories are an often overlooked strand in the narrative of the Sunni Muslim minority, who have been persecuted in northern Myanmar for decades.
The Rohingya, who also include Hindus, have lived in Rakhine state for centuries. Often called the “most persecuted minority in the world,” they have been denied citizenship by the Myanmar authorities, who view them as illegal migrants from Bangladesh. In 2012, tens of thousands of Rohingya were driven from their homes across Rakhine, the victims of an ethnic cleansing campaign by state security forces and Buddhist mobs. Those who stayed were often restricted from leaving their villages.
Muslim Rohingya have fled Rakhine State in large numbers in recent years (IOM, UNHCR, Oxford Analytica)
In 2015 the Rohingya were disenfranchised, just before Myanmar held its first openly-contested general election for 25 years. Since then, their persecution at the hands of the Burmese army has intensified: in August 2018 a UNHCR report described how armed forces were responsible for atrocities, including mass killings, and called for military chiefs to face charges of genocide.
Most Rohingya refugees in recent years have fled to Bangladesh, Malaysia and other neighbouring countries. But Saudi Arabia is also a common destination: the Gulf kingdom is home to a quarter of a million Rohingya, and has been a source of refuge and work for decades, hosting the second largest population outside Myanmar after Bangladesh.
Boys play in paddy fields near Balukhali refugee camp, Bangladesh in February 2018 (Kaamil Ahmed/MEE)
The Rohingya presence there dates back to the 1950s when, like other Muslims from south-east Asia, they would sail to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj in Mecca. During the early 1970s, more Rohingya arrived following a recurrence of violence in Myanmar. King Faisal granted them residency status in 1973, allowing them to live, work and travel within the kingdom and abroad.
Rohingya Muslims protest outside the Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur in June 2012 (AFP)
Most settled in Mecca and Medina, according to Mabrur Ahmed, director of Restless Beings, an NGO which has helped displaced Rohingya. “For many Rohingya, when they were given permission to stay in Saudi under King Faisal’s time, it was viewed as a form of citizenship,” he says, “something they were deprived of in Myanmar. A network of Rohingya has built over time in Saudi Arabia. Many use their Saudi sponsors to get visas for other relatives.”
But the Rohingya are now less welcome in the kingdom, as the authorities crack down on illegal workers as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 economic plan. Many Rohingya who arrive in the kingdom do so with worthless fake documents, which can lead to years of detention and deep regret that they came to Saudi Arabia in the first place.
When the brightest has to flee
Rashid sits in the tent in Balukhali that is now his home. Unclipping his phone from the car battery shared by refugees to charge their mobiles, he recounts his five-year journey from Myanmar to Saudi Arabia and then back to Bangladesh. From a young age, Rashid dreamed of becoming a teacher, hoping that it would help him “build up the next generation”. He lived with his family in Maungdaw, one of the few places in Myanmar where Rohingya account for the majority, numbering around 480,000 residents from a total population of 510,000. The town, like other parts of Rakhine, suffers from chronic poverty: malnutrition is rife and many locals rely on fishing to survive.
Rohingya Muslims try to cross the Naf river into Bangladesh in June 2012 (AFP)
“We would be banned from leaving our homes, and if we were seen outside, they would automatically arrest us,” says Rashid. That, in turn, meant that they could not leave home and limited their ability to earn money. “This was our daily reality. It just got too much. The army gave me no choice but to leave.”
And so, in August 2012, at the age of 20, Rashid followed the legions of other Rohingya men of his generation fleeing the region. Leaving home, he first walked six miles to the Myanmar border, then crossed the river Naf into Bangladesh.
From there he walked 80 kilometres towards Cox’s Bazar, a popular resort which has the world’s longest uninterrupted natural beach. It’s a favourite among Bangladeshis, from students taking selfies to mark the end of the school year, to families hiring mini-vans to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries.
But the Rohingya refugee crisis has politicised the character of the area. Banners proclaiming Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as the “mother of humanity” are now draped across the city. International aid agencies, escorted by police, have set up shop in hotels and compounds, increasing costs for locals.
Less evident, apart from inside the camps, are the Rohingya themselves. Even prior to the mass exodus of 2016, the refugees from Myanmar lived in the shadows, taking work wherever they could find it amid fear of arrest or imprisonment by the Bangladeshi authorities.
But the newcomers are ripe for exploitation, not least at the hands of Bangladeshi brokers, known as dalaals, who trade in forged passports. It is impossible for the Rohingya refugees to reach the Middle East without buying their services: last year alone, dalaals dealt in more than 250,000 fake documents to send Rohingya abroad, according to Bangladesh’s employment minister Nurul Islam.
Abu Nayem has been the assistant director at the overworked office in Cox’s Bazar, from where legitimate passports are issued, since 2017. The hallways where he works are plastered with signs “banning brokers” or “brokery” from inside the centre.
Brokers are a frequent problem for the passport office in Cox’s Bazar (Kaamil Ahmed/MEE)
Surrounded by paperwork, Nayem strokes his long beard as he fields phone calls and questions from administrators coming in and out of his office. He says that most of the Rohingya who wanted documentation for Saudi Arabia were women, heading there for work or to join their husbands. He pulls out a sheaf of paperwork.
“This Rohingya woman tried to get a passport,” Nayem says. “We figured she was posing as a Bangladeshi when she failed to name basic facts like the nearest three villages in the town listed in the application, or the founder of Bangladesh.”
Back in September 2012, Rashid soon realised that he was not earning enough to support his family in Myanmar. It was then that a Bangladeshi friend suggested he consider heading to Saudi Arabia.
Rashid was hesitant at first but then recalled an uncle who had made the trip to the Gulf before returning to Myanmar. He agreed to pay a broker $354 to smuggle him to the Middle East - double the price quoted to Bangladeshis.
Much of that fee went to an elderly Bangladeshi villager, who Rashid had never met before but who now told passport officials that he was his father. “The dalaal told me to memorise a fake address, the name of a village, and my full name for my interview at the passport office,” Rashid said.
Three months later the passport arrived.
Living in the Saudi shadows
Rashid worked for nearly a year at odd jobs to pay off the smugglers, then in November 2013 flew out of Chittagong, Bangladesh’s second biggest city, for Saudi Arabia.
His problems began the moment he landed in Jeddah. The broker had given him an umrah visa, issued to Muslims for a lesser non-obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca. It’s a common tactic, used to make Rohingya look less suspicious to the authorities.
But Bangladeshi passports, like other South Asian passports, are confiscated on arrival in Saudi Arabia. The authorities say it’s to prevent pilgrims from certain countries from working illegally. It leaves Rohingya arrivals without any identity in the kingdom, forcing them to live in the shadows for lower wages, at greater risk of exploitation and in constant danger of capture by immigration police.
Pilgrims arrive at Jeddah airport in November 2009 (Reuters)
“Each day would be a blessing,” says Rashid, who found work in a factory. “We would be in a constant state of tension, unsure when our last day would be. We would spend all day working inside and then sleep on the floor in the same room. It isn’t a way to live.”
Then, one night in April 2015, the Saudi police stormed the factory. “There was just so much shouting. People were running everywhere panicking. It caught us all by surprise.”
Such raids against illegal migrants increased after then-Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef launched the “Homeland Without Illegal Expats” campaign in March 2017 to track, detain, and deport individuals who live illegally in Saudi Arabia.
Police detain undocumented workers near Riyadh in March 2013 (Reuters)
MEE has also obtained evidence from Rohingya living inside Saudi Arabia of undercover Saudi immigration police raiding Rohingya communities disguised as locals.
“The Saudi immigration police has upped their campaign against illegal workers in the last few years,” a Rohingya activist who wished to remain anonymous told MEE from Jeddah. “They come undercover, wearing no uniform and arrest those without documents. Many Rohingya get caught as they run away without anything to their name. The raids have created an atmosphere of further fear for the undocumented Rohingya living in Saudi.” Activists used encrypted apps like Signal and Whatsapp due to fears of reprisal from local Saudi authorities.
“No one saw it coming,” says Rashid as he recalled being handcuffed and led to a police van. “The moment they put the handcuffs on me I just wanted to melt away. All this effort to come to Saudi. How would I provide for my family now?”
Inside the city of detention
The Shumaisi Detention Centre is a complex of buildings next to the Jeddah-Makkah expressway, covering more than 2.5 million square metres and housing approximately 32,000 detainees. It is separated from the outside world by a series of towering brown checkpoints, through which a continuous procession of coaches unloads thousands of “illegal” migrants.
Some of the facilities sound akin to those of a small town, including a 50-bed hospital, a laundry which washes 13 tonnes of clothes per hour and, according to the Saudi authorities, bedding for every detainee.
But Human Rights Watch has described conditions inside Shumaisi as cramped and overcrowded. In 2014 it was reported that a stampede there killed one migrant worker and injured nine others. In 2018, Yemeni detainees reported being beaten extensively by Saudi officers inside and subject to humiliating punishments.
Young detainees in the Shumaisi Detention Centre: their identities have been obscured for their own safety (screengrab).
Riyadh has long viewed itself as being the guardian of Muslims, including the Rohingya. Waleed al-Khereiji, Saudi ambassador to Turkey, told the Daily Sabah in 2017: “Nobody can claim that they have exerted more efforts for the Rohingya people than the kingdom has during the last 70 years. As history stands witness that the kingdom was one of the first states that supported their case at the international level and in the UN Human Rights Council.”
But, like other Gulf countries, Riyadh did not sign the 1951 refugee convention. It means there is no legal framework or structure to deal with refugees and asylum seekers - and left Rashid with no rights.
Rashid didn’t know it at the time, but Shumaisi was to end up being his home for the next 20 months. On arrival, he had all his possessions, including his phone, wallet and watch confiscated, and was then separated with the other Rohingya and Bangladeshis. He was given no indication as to how long he would stay.
“Many of us thought that by telling the Saudis we were Rohingya it would give us more rights,” he says. “But it made matters worse. We would be denied permission to leave, and joined the hundreds of other Rohingya who have been stuck inside Shumaisi.”
Detainees told MEE they spent their days praying, making up games or browsing social media with smuggled phones. “In jail, they would give us bits of bread, dhall, and sometimes meat,” says Rashid. “But the food was not enough. We were left hungry.”
Some detainees write and upload songs to YouTube, begging Salman for their freedom. Videos posted by activists showed the families of detained Rohingya staging protests in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, chanting for their freedom, all in the hope that someone will take notice.
Sleeping quarters inside the Shumaisi Detention Centre in Jeddah (Twitter/ @Mohamme69391758)
But for some of the longer-term detainees, the wait inside the centre has become unbearable. “A large number of the Rohingya [in Shumaisi] have been living there for four to five years,” says Rashid. “They thought they would be released soon and by having this mindset, ended up staying longer than intended.”
A Rohingya activist based in Jeddah, who wished to remain anonymous amid fears for his safety, told MEE that many detainees end up developing mental disorders due to their ordeal. “If they are not worrying for their loved ones who have been killed or displaced by the Burmese army, then they sit in a state of tension, fearful of being sent back to Myanmar,” he said.
Videos sent to MEE by activists show Rohingya detainees exhibiting distressing signs from their confinement. Some suffer mental illness at their inability to leave, while others become distressed as to whether their family members back in Myanmar are dead or alive. One Rohingya, confined inside Shumaisi for four years, was filmed rolling around in a latrine. Others sit on the bottom of bunk beds, staring into the camera phone lens as they recount what happened to them and their desperation to leave Shumaisi.
Rashid was inside Shumaisi when the Myanmar military launched its 2016 campaign against the Rohingya. Using a smuggled phone, he and fellow detainees learned of the horrors unfolding back home - including how some of Rashid’s wider family members had been massacred.
“I was dismayed about the whole situation, helpless and unable to do anything,” he says. “I couldn’t stop worrying about my family. There was nothing else I could do except pray to Allah.”
It wasn’t until August 2017 that Rashid spoke to his family and was told that his home had been destroyed by the authorities.
Unidentified armed men walk past a burning house in Gawdu Tharya near Maungdaw in September 2017 (AFP)
He remembers holding the phone close to his ear. His father’s voice had a delayed echo, but Rashid heard enough to know what the family went through in Myanmar. Unable to contain himself, Rashid’s hands shook as tears streamed down his face.
“My family told me that their house was burned down, and they had been driven out of their homes,” he recalls experiencing the Rohingya genocide from afar. “But even with everything they went through, my dad told me not to worry for them. I just wanted to be there and hold them close.”
‘My palms were sweaty.
Rashid had been in Shumaisi for more than two years. He had bribed his way into Saudi Arabia - now he had to bribe his way out. He determined that his best option were the foreign consulates which operated from offices inside Shumaisi to support their citizens. The problem: detained Rohingya are regarded as stateless, with no support from Myanmar. Appeals to diplomats from India, Nepal and Pakistan are always rejected.
But detainees and returnees report that Bangladeshi diplomats can get documents to detained Rohingya in Saudi Arabia - for a price. Numerous accounts, given to MEE from former and current Rohingya detainees at Shumaisi, consistently put the amount charged for a fake Bangladeshi travel document to leave the country at between $530-$670 (SRA 2000- SRA 2500).
Rohingya activists in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia told MEE that diplomats would issue the documents for detainees once paid by a third party outside the detention centre. A Rohingya detainee, who wished to remain anonymous for his safety, told MEE that detainees from Myanmar and Bangladesh lived in the same room, but the embassy would only help the Bangladeshis.
A Rohingya refugee shows a banknote he was given by a local NGO at a camp, near Cox's Bazar in October 2017 (Reuters)
“When we asked the other embassies [for help] they all said no. But when we asked the Bangladeshis, they said that you have no document or any form of ID, but give me SRA2000 and I can find a way out for you. We have spent so much just getting here. How do you expect us to pay for the additional cost of buying our freedom? We can’t take it any more. There is no other way out but to pay them.”
The payments are made either via a relative of the detained Rohingya or directly to the official, according to multiple Rohingya both inside Shumaisi and living in Saudi Arabia who have spoken to MEE. Middle East Eye asked the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry and the Bangladeshi embassy in Saudi Arabia to respond to the allegations.
The embassy did not respond. A source at the foreign office in Dhaka told Middle East Eye that while such activity may have been possible until 2006, when the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party was in a coalition government with the Jamaat e Islami party, no diplomats would do such a thing now under the existing Awami League administration.
But Middle East Eye’s investigation showed that diplomats serving under the ruling Awami League party have helped smuggle Rohingya out of Saudi to Bangladesh.
Rohingya refugees wait for food distribution at Balukhali in September 2017 (AFP)
Rashid arranged for relatives to pay for the documents. Two weeks later, in January 2018, he was collected from his quarters in the detention centre and handed back his phone, wallet and watch he had not seen in nearly three years. Next, he gave biometric scans of his fingerprints and retina, joining the thousands of other illegal workers deported from Saudi Arabia whose details are now held on a database. Finally, he was given a travel document by a Bangladeshi official in Shumaisi.
The Saudi authorities were allowing Rashid to leave - but were also banning him from the kingdom for the rest of his life.
The worst moment, Rashid says, was being driven by a Saudi policeman to King Abdul-Aziz International airport in Jeddah. “I said nothing to the policeman. My palms were sweaty. Stomach turning. This was my last chance. I just wanted to be with my family.”
Risk and heartache
The five-hour flight from Jeddah to Dhaka allowed Rashid a brief chance to exhale, falling asleep as a detainee in one country and waking up as a refugee in another. Most importantly, he was close to seeing his family again. To hold them. To comfort them. To ensure they were safe.
But on the tarmac at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport the fear once more took hold. “I was arrested alongside other Bengali,” Rashid says. “Some of the Bangladeshis were released but the officers realised we were Rohingya so kept us there.”
Sitting in Bangladeshi custody for four hours, Rashid was eventually released. “I told them that they were mistaken, and that we came to be with our families, who had been forced to leave their homes.”
Balukhali camp in November 2017 and August 2018 (slide bar left and right, AFP)
Rashid made it back to Cox’s Bazar later that month after hitchhiking, begging and scrounging his way for 400 km across Bangladesh. The scale of the refugee camps was almost too much for him to comprehend.
“The sight of it all [the Rohingya camps] was just overwhelming,” he says. “Nothing compared to the pictures you see people posting online about the camps. It was just so big.”
At the market just outside Balukhali, someone loaned Rashid a phone. He punched in a precious number he had scrawled on a crumpled piece of paper he had saved from Saudi. The phone rang. Sadat picked up.
Saudi Arabia is now nothing but a distant memory for Rashid. Instead, he is grappling with the realities of being a resident in one of the largest refugee camps in the world. He, like thousands of others, is trapped inside Balukhali. The only way to leave is to secure permission from the Bangladeshi authorities or sneak out. Like Sadat, Rashid has grown frustrated at the conditions in which he lives. Sitting on the dirt floor of his new home, his only solace is knowing that his family is close by.
Inside the tent, women begin to cook dinner from whatever food they are given by relief agencies. Their diet is usually lentils and rice, not too dissimilar the food Rashid ate in Shumaisi. Smoke from the firewood billows inside the tent before escaping through the small vents punched into one corner of the canvas.
Children run through the streets of the Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar in February 2018 (Kaamil Ahmed/MEE)
Rashid sits with his siblings, near a newspaper clipping about Saudi Arabia. It is the only reminder he has, other than his memories, of those years in the kingdom. Yet fellow Rohingya refugees in the camp continue to approach him, wanting advice on how to reach the Middle East.
Rashid chooses instead to tell them of the dangers they could face in Saudi Arabia. Of what happened to him. Of the risk and heartache which will accompany their journey.
“Every time someone asks me about Saudi Arabia,” he says, “I tell them not to go. Too many people are being caught and left to rot in prison.”
Some heed Rashid’s warnings that the cost of heading for Saudi Arabia is too high. But others contemplate making the perilous journey, as the monsoon rains further depress conditions in the camps.
Would Rashid do it again?
He shakes his head vigorously from side to side.
“No, no, no. Never again.”
Kaamil Ahmed / agency credited
Joe Gill / Oscar Rickett
Mahmoud Bondok / Karim
Main photo: Rohingya refugees wait at Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar in February 2018 (Kaamil Ahmed/MEE)