CHITTAGONG, Bangladesh — Every day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Ayat Ullah has to scour every article of clothing that comes before him for a stray thread or an uneven seam. Laboring in the quality control section of a factory in this southern industrial city, Ullah said that he keeps to himself, and rarely speaks unless he is spoken to. He spends his work shifts in fear, terrified of his colleagues discovering that he is not a Bangladeshi citizen.
“I can’t introduce myself as a Rohingya. I can’t talk to anyone openly,” he said. “I can’t express anything, and I feel really bad about that.”
Ullah is part of an ethnic minority group that has been facing widespread persecution in neighboring Myanmar. Despite living in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state for many generations, the Rohingya have been denied citizenship by the government, rendering them stateless and limiting their access to education, health care and freedom of movement.
In recent years, the situation in Rakhine has worsened, prompting widespread migration to Bangladesh as the Rohingya fled atrocities committed by the Myanmar military. The height of the exodus occurred last year, after the military launched a crackdown that drove more than 700,000 Rohingya across the Naf River, which serves as a geographic border between southern Bangladesh and northern Myanmar.
Today, in Cox’s Bazar — five hours south of Chittagong — there are roughly 900,000 Rohingya refugees residing in camps, many of which were erected virtually overnight to accommodate the flood of desperate families relaying horrific accounts of killings, rape and burnings.
But outside the camps, the numbers get murkier. While Rohingya activists in Chittagong estimate there are roughly 50,000 living within the city — working illegally in sectors that include apparel manufacturing, the fishing industry, construction, and as domestic helpers — they also cautioned that there are likely more due to the fact that this group of people lives in secrecy for fear of getting arrested.
Under the radar
Skirting under the radar — for those able to speak the Chittagongian dialect and learn Bengali, Bangladesh’s national language — the Rohingya outside the camps include not only the most recent wave of newcomers, but also those who arrived here in previous decades.
Before the 2017 exodus, there had been a massive outflow of refugees in 1991 and 1992, when roughly 250,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar into the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. Before that, in 1978, about 200,000 Rohingya were allegedly forcibly evicted by the military, while the then-junta-led government claimed their flight signified the illegal status of the ethnic minority group. Even today, many of the Burmese refuse to use the word “Rohingya,” opting to classify them as “Bengali” as a way to infer that they are from Bangladesh.
Under this context, Ullah — who arrived in Chittagong in April 2017 — is considered a newcomer. Similar to many in the camps, the 20-year-old could recount instances of harassment from the military — like when he was stopped and searched daily as he biked to school, or when soldiers came to his village and ordered everyone to kneel on the ground for hours at a time.
“The military would drag all the people from their homes, and they would make us kneel on the ground. They wouldn’t give us a reason,” Ullah said, remembering that the longest period his village had to remain on their knees was for seven hours. “They did it to everyone, even women and children.”
He dreamed of becoming a teacher after his matriculation exams in 2016, and was even offered a job at the local school. But his hopes disappeared when it become clear to him that the military was targeting educated Rohingya. His cousin, who had also passed the exams, was detained by the military and his family was ordered to pay about $250 to get him back. This was a fortune in Rakhine, Myanmar’s poorest state.
“After my cousin was taken away and his family was extorted, I was afraid that it would happen to me, and my family would not be able to pay the money,” Ullah said. “As all these things kept happening, that’s when I decided to leave.”
‘They must stay in the camps’
While the bulk of exporting factories are centered in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, Chittagong’s factories still make up about 15 percent of the market share, said Kazi Mahabub Uddin, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) Chittagong region director.
The first 11 months of the 2017-2018 fiscal year has brought good news for Bangladesh’s apparel manufacturing industry, with exports rising 9.8 percent to total $28.13 billion in the period from July to May. Recently, the government forecast $33.5 billion in apparel exports for the 2018-2019 fiscal year.
With 500,000 workers in Chittagong’s exporting factories, Uddin said there is consistently a 30 percent shortfall in labor. Despite this need for workers, he denied that the Rohingya be allowed to work within the factories.
“Out of humanitarian goodwill, we allow them in our country and they live in the camps. But they must stay there,” Uddin said. “We cannot let them work. We won’t do that because they are foreigners. If we let them work, then they will stay and we already have enough population in our country.”
He added that any Rohingya found in a factory would be immediately taken back to the camps.
This is a sentiment that Siddique Chowdhury has lived under since he arrived in Chittagong in 1982. Today, the 64-year-old Rohingya works in a massive apparel-manufacturing complex that employs more than 20,000 workers. He has worked his way up to the administrative level of the factory, but despite his prominent position, Chowdhury said that he still hides his true identity.
“Never, I never say I’m Rohingya. I am from Bangladesh. If I say I’m Rohingya, I would lose my job,” he insisted, adding that since 2016, it has gotten harder for a refugee to get a job in a garment factory.
When he applied for one in the mid-1980s, he said that all he needed to provide was a chairman certificate — a piece of paper from a village head confirming a person’s residency. Today, the documents mandated by the government include a national ID, a birth certificate, and a national education certificate.
He estimated that there are roughly 2,500 Rohingya working secretly in Chittagong’s factories, but “no one really knows the real number.” Since most of these people are uneducated, their roles are usually quite basic, like a helper or a thread cutter. If a Rohingya approached Chowdhury for a job, he would try to place them within his company’s factories, but he always cautions them to never reveal their status.
“It will be good if the government would allow the Rohingya to have a work permit to work in the garment or textile sectors, especially for the women,” he said. “They can earn a bit of money for their personal life, and it will be very easy for them to get a job.”
A complex issue
Even though the persecution facing the Rohingya has been an issue spanning decades, Chowdhury said that the Bangladeshi government will “never” issue work permits to them. He believes, however, that the brands and the U.S. government have the power to change this.
The U.S. could appeal to the Bangladeshi government with the promise of reinstating its duty-free access to American markets, which was revoked in 2013 in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza building collapse, Chowdhury said. Meanwhile, the brands could also persuade the BGMEA, given that they have reshaped the industry’s fire and workers’ safety standards over the past five years ever since Rana Plaza.
“The brands can encourage the government and the BGMEA to provide more jobs to the Rohingya community by promising them that they would provide more business or a higher price for products,” Chowdhury said.
But even this, he contended, will not really solve the Rohingya’s issue of integrating into Bangladesh, as locals might feel threatened that the Rohingya would “steal” the jobs.
“I think the factory owners will wonder why they should keep hiring the Rohingya even if it is legal, because it would create an unnecessary problem,” he said. “It’s a very complex issue.”
Nahidul Hasan Nayan, a union leader representing Chittagong’s workers and the operations director of the Awaj Foundation — which advocates for workers’ rights — was torn. He said that as a Bangladeshi citizen, he would prefer for the Rohingya to return to Myanmar. “That is our demand. They should return safely to their country and solve their own problems,” he said.
“But they are living here long-term. We are not solving this issue immediately, so we can try [to figure out] how we can use their experiences or utilize their expertise, or how do we engage them in our development issues in the industry and other jobs,” Nayan said. He added that the Bangladeshi government needed to come up with a policy as a starting point.
Nate Herman, vice president of supply chain at the American Apparel and Footwear Association — representing more than 1,000 retailers and brands — said that while the AAFA sent a letter of concern to the Myanmar government in December, the association has begun to look at additional methods to alleviate the crisis, which he declined to elaborate on.
“When the refugee situation is protracted, we believe that it is best for the host country to establish legal and safe means for the refugees to access work,” Herman said. “When such work is legal, and transparent, then our members can address labor rights issues up front through their CSR compliance programs.”
Meanwhile, H&M, which has 35 supplier factories in Chittagong, has donated $400,000 to the refugee crisis in Bangladesh and Myanmar, which will allow the Red Cross to scale up its work.
“In Bangladesh, the most focus will be given on sanitation and hygiene and the crucial access to clean water,” said a spokesman for H&M by email.
As for refugees who might be secretly working in Chittagong’s garment factories, H&M’s statement did not address their status as a vulnerable individual, but said that all their supplier factories are required to employ workers holding a legal permit.
“If a migrant worker has a work permit and is employed by a supplier of ours, we ensure that they receive the same entitlements as local workers,” the spokesman said. “We are also looking into HR and recruitment systems at our suppliers in Bangladesh to ensure that no workers are exploited irrespective of their vulnerability status.”
Living with dignity
Mohammad Ayoub has risen quickly in the ranks of his shoe factory, going from a helper to a supervisor overseeing 52 people in less than a year. Yet the 22-year-old said that he worries that his colleagues would ostracize him — or worse, report him — if they were to ever find out his status.
“I believe there would be discrimination,” he said. “I really feel bad especially since people already mock us. They watch the news and hear about the crisis, but they still say bad things about the refugees and use abusive language when talking about us.”
Ayoub’s family originated from Maungdaw Township in Rakhine state, but fled Myanmar in 1992. Born in 1995 in Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Ayoub does not feel like a Bangladeshi, and hopes to one day be resettled in a third country.
To get this job at this factory — which produces boots for a prominent American footwear company — Ayoub had to buy a fake birth certificate and chairman certificate for 3,000 taka ($35 at current exchange). In his role as a supervisor, he makes a basic salary of 9,300 taka; but with overtime hours, he is able to augment his monthly pay to about 15,000 taka ($177). A third of that gets sent back to his family in Kutupalong camp, while 2,500 taka (roughly $30) goes to rent and the rest to food and transport.
He said that leaving Kutupalong illegally to search for a job was scary, but he knew he had to do it in order to support his family.
“This is my first job ever. I feel very happy that I can finally earn money,” Ayoub said. “It’s better if refugees can work because right now, they feel like they are staying in a prison.”
Razia Sultana, a human rights activist and founder of the Rohingya Women Welfare Society, said much of the population is still vulnerable. Over the past two years, as the camps in Cox’s Bazar have grown more overcrowded, food scarcity has soared while living conditions have worsened, pushing refugees to unfavorable situations like prostitution or drug-smuggling. She advocates for providing the refugees with an ID card that would allow them to move freely for work, so that they may have more legitimate avenues instead of resorting to the illegal options.
“If they have a job, they can live with dignity,” she said. She also scoffed at the perspective that the Rohingya will remain in Bangladesh indefinitely if they were given jobs, given the constant discrimination they face.
“Every time a Bangladeshi knows that they are from [Myanmar], that they are Rohingya, they always use bad language to them,” she said. “Even the Rohingya middle class — we may have a good life, but there is still a fear.”
When Jasmin Khatum first started working as a thread cutter, she said she was fearful of what was expected. Before this, the only job she had outside Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar was as a maid.
“I only dared to work in a factory because there’s a lot of women working there like me, so that gave me some courage,” the 21-year-old said, adding that she was glad to be out of the camp because there is rarely enough food there. “Still, I don’t feel very good about being here either.”
Despite the Myanmar’s government claim that the Rohingya can now be repatriated safely, Khatum said that not a single person believes this if the military is not held accountable for their crimes. She said that in Rakhine state’s Buthidaung Township, her cousin was beaten to death. After she and her family saw the body, they decided to run for their lives.
“I feel hard inside when I see all the news about the crisis because all these people had their own homes, and now they have nothing,” Khatum said. “The Myanmar government says that nothing will happen to us if we go back, but none of us believe it.”