By John Quinley III in The Daily Star

Just over one year ago, gunmen stormed the offices of a prominent Rohingya-led human rights organisation in Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar district, Bangladesh, to fatally shoot its chairperson Mohib Ullah. This targeted assassination, carried out by men believed to be affiliated with the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Rohingya militant group, robbed the community and the world of a brave, inspiring, and outspoken human rights defender.

Despite Mohib’s killing drawing international condemnation, little has been done to improve the security of Rohingya human rights defenders in the refugee camps, where more than one million Rohingya struggle to survive, unable to safely return to their indigenous homeland in Myanmar.

Mohib regularly spoke of security risks from different actors in Bangladesh. He understood well the political dynamics in the refugee camps and that his peaceful advocacy was perceived as a threat to ARSA’s authority and control in the camps.

He texted me a month before his assassination. “It is [a] bad night for me in the camps. When will you come to Bangladesh?” In a separate text he said, “I am fine, but still in fear of ARSA.”

Rohingya face ongoing genocide in Myanmar, where the military and previous governments persecuted them for decades. In 2017, Myanmar military soldiers went on a campaign to destroy the Rohingya people forcibly deporting more than 700,000 to Bangladesh. Since that time, the security situation in the camps has deteriorated with Rohingya human rights defenders being killed, abducted, tortured, and threatened by an array of non-state actors.

Mohib founded the organisation the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights to promote the rights of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, Myanmar, and globally. Because of this work, he knew he was a target and that he needed protection. And he took steps to seek protection.

Before his death, Mohib Ullah wrote to authorities in Bangladesh and officials at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – the agency mandated to protect refugees – requesting protection. His messages went unanswered.

Mohib Ullah recruited Rohingya volunteers to serve as unarmed security guards for him and put in place other measures, including at times sleeping outside the refugee camps when he believed he was in danger.

Tragically, Mohib’s efforts to ensure his own security were in vain.

I remember Mohib Ullah on my frequent visits to the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar district as a man who smiled easily – a man who was extremely hospitable and humble. Our conversations over tea and instant coffee would meander between the need for international accountability for the Rohingya, refugee rights, and the more mundane pleasures of daily life.

Mohib understood the broader political dynamics related to the refugee crisis that he was a living part of. He was not only a leader in the camps, but a global figure who called for justice for the Rohingya before audiences at the White House and the UN Human Rights Council.

Not long after the assassination, Bangladeshi authorities opened an investigation into Mohib Ullah’s killing, resulting in the identification of more than 25 suspects. The suspects included ARSA members, and in March 2022, the Bangladesh government publicly acknowledged ARSA’s involvement in the assassination. With threats continuing against Mohib’s family and colleagues, the authorities allowed some to resettle to a third country.

However, the security situation in the camps a year after his death remains dire. My colleagues and I at Fortify Rights have spoken to dozens of Rohingya human rights defenders and religious leaders during the past year who have been forced into hiding due to continuing threats from non-state actors, including ARSA.

“If there is no justice for Mohib Ullah, then people are at risk,” a Rohingya activist told me from a hiding place.

More must be done to protect Rohingya human rights defenders in Bangladesh. Granting refugees the right to freedom of movement in Bangladesh would go a long way to ensure some protections for human rights defenders, in addition to allowing Rohingya refugees access to formal education and livelihood opportunities. The Bangladesh authorities and UNHCR should also expand the network of safe houses available for at-risk refugee human rights defenders and their families.

The Rohingya want to go back to Myanmar but repatriation for Rohingya refugees is impossible given the recent military coup in Myanmar and ongoing persecution and violence in Rakhine state. And until effective measures are implemented to ensure refugee protections, the Bangladesh government should support third country resettlement of Rohingya human rights defenders facing threats to their lives in Bangladesh. 

In an encouraging move in August 2022, Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan signaled Dhaka’s commitment to opening more resettlement pathways after US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken committed days prior to work to “significantly increase resettlement of Rohingya refugees from the region, including from Bangladesh, so that they can rebuild their lives in the United States.”

Dhaka should now follow through on its commitment and facilitate unfettered resettlement options, not only for Rohingya human rights defenders but all Rohingya refugees.

Increased commitment and support from Bangladesh, donor governments, and UNHCR is needed now more than ever. The risk is too great. Mohib’s death was an incalculable loss for the Rohingya community, which continues to reverberate today. Authorities in Bangladesh and elsewhere must act now to ensure that those responsible are brought to justice and that other Rohingya human rights defenders are protected from the same kind of threats that Mohib tried and failed to escape.

This article was originally published in The Daily Star here.

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