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Rohingya refugees fleeing anti-Muslim persecution in Myanmar are being exploited by the Arakan Army to smuggle synthetic drugs into Bangladesh. The army, which is demanding greater autonomy for Myanmar’s Rakhine State, uses money from the drug sales to purchase arms and ammunition. It moves the drugs from production centres in Myanmar’s interior to Rakhine State, where the Rohingya make the arduous trek along refugee migration routes into neighbouring Bangladesh. Lacking other sources of income, the Rohingya are vulnerable to recruitment by the army’s drug smugglers.

A Vulnerable People

Having lost family, friends, and most of their possessions during military crackdowns in Myanmar, the Rohingya find themselves in overcrowded refugee camps with few resources at their disposal. Poverty and restrictions on employment in refugee camps in Bangladesh make it difficult for the Rohingya to support themselves and their families.

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As highlighted in the Stable Seas: Bay of Bengal maritime security report, limited resources can trigger secondary migrations or push refugees into engaging in illicit activities. Despite the risks, drug smuggling offers an enticing prospect as it provides money for basic necessities like better rations and healthcare. Between 2017 and 2018, authorities arrested more than 100 Rohingya crossing the border into Bangladesh on drug trafficking charges.

Overlaps between drug smuggling routes and Rohingya migration routes have far-reaching repercussions for the livelihoods of the Rohingya. The links between the Rohingya and the drug trade have led to increased sanctions against refugee rights, including denied access to mobile phone services and rules that limit the movement of the Rohingya outside refugee camps. Bangladesh also instituted the Narcotics Control Act 2018, which created a maximum punishment of the death penalty for producing, smuggling, or distributing more than five grams of amphetamine-based products.

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