19 January 2015 | Anne-Kathrin Glatz
Violence, land grabbing and discrimination: Why minorities in Bangladesh continue to suffer from new and protracted displacement
At least 431,000 people continue to live in displacement as a result of past conflict and ongoing violence in Bangladesh. Most belong to minority groups and some have been displaced for over 40 years. In a new report, IDMC describes how ongoing tensions and violence continue to cause new displacement in certain areas, and why access to land rights must be guaranteed to help displaced minorities reach durable solutions.
Indigenous people and other minorities disproportionately affected by displacement resulting from conflict and violence
While disasters induced by natural hazards displace large numbers of people belonging to both Bangladesh’s Muslim Bengali majority as well as minority groups, the latter have disproportionately been affected by conflict and violence and resulting protracted and new displacement. Today’s internally displaced people (IDPs) as a result of conflict and violence include indigenous people in the south-eastern Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) region, Muslim Urdu speakers in urban areas and Hindus and Buddhists in various parts of the country.
In CHT, small-scale violence between Muslim Bengali settlers and indigenous people, or Pahari, continues to lead to fresh displacement. On 16 December 2014, the anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence, a row over land ownership turned violent, leaving a Buddhist temple and shops vandalised and more than 50 homes belonging to indigenous people destroyed. An estimated 260 people and their families were forced to flee.
In Dhaka, the country’s densely populated capital, Muslim Urdu speakers first displaced during Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971 live in fear of being forcibly evicted and thereby forced into secondary displacement. Ownership over the land their slum-like settlements are built on is often unclear and its value is rising, making it attractive for private investors. Last June, ten IDPs – mostly women and children – were killed and at least 50 injured during inter-communal violence in Dhaka’s Mirpur area. Allegedly, the perpetrators wanted to push already displaced families out of their homes and off valuable land.
Some 280,000 people remain displaced in CHT as a result of the 1973 to 1997 insurgency and ongoing inter-communal violence. In 2000, when displacement was at its peak, there were 667,000 IDPs in that region – two thirds among them Pahari and only one third Bengali settlers. From the little information available, it appears that new displacement has since disproportionately affected Pahari. In addition, more than 151,000 Muslim Urdu-speakers who were forced to flee their homes in the aftermath of Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971 remain without durable solutions.
No one systematically collects data on their number and situation, including whether and how they are affected by the many natural hazards such as cyclones or severe flooding that occur in Bangladesh. This also makes it difficult to determine if or when displacement has ended. Real numbers are therefore probably higher.
Equal respect for minority land rights is essential
Unresolved land issues have been a key driver of violence and displacement and have also prevented IDPs from reaching durable solutions.
In the early 1980s, the government’s counterinsurgency strategy included settling landless Bengalis from other parts of Bangladesh in CHT, on land belonging to indigenous people who it was forcibly relocating. The 1997 peace accord includes provisions to resolve land disputes between the two communities – each representing half of CHT’s current population – but 17 years after formal hostilities were brought to an end, many of its key provisions have not been put into practice. At the same time, the government continues to turn a blind eye to the additional settlement of Bengalis and facilitates the acquisition of indigenous land by private companies. The military, whose presence in CHT is estimated to be more than 40 times greater than in the rest of the country, also appropriates such land to set up permanent military installations.
In the case of CHT’s eleven indigenous groups, who traditionally depend on slash-and-burn agriculture, this has meant the marginalisation of a whole culture and has prolonged the displacement of many. Their customary land ownership is not recognised under Bangladeshi law, which sees such land as belonging to the state and thus available for allocation to others. This has led to a situation in which customary indigenous land rights can be trumped by formal titles received from the state by Bengali settlers and businesses.
Urdu-speaking IDPs living in urban slum-like settlements continue to face discrimination. Their postal addresses in areas which previously were camps indicate that they belong to the Urdu-speaking minority. This often prevents them from obtaining passports and accessing educational and employment opportunities as well as health services. Insecurity of tenure makes their situation even more unstable.
5 measures to bring IDPs closer to durable solutions and prevent further displacement
Over four decades since Bangladesh’s displacement crisis began, solutions can and must be found for members of minority and indigenous groups still living in displacement. The government of Bangladesh must begin with the following five measures to prevent further displacement and bring IDPs closer to durable solutions:
- As recommended by the chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, fully implement the CHT peace accord, with a particular focus on guaranteeing the land rights of the region’s indigenous Pahari population, including IDPs.
- Ensure municipal authorities avoid discrimination against Urdu-speaking IDPs so that they can access their rights in the same measure as other Bangladeshi citizens.
- Systematically gather data on the situation, number and needs of IDPs, including those living in protracted displacement and those displaced by disasters.
- Develop a comprehensive policy or legislation for the protection of IDPs which covers all causes and phases of displacement, as well as action plans to respond to the needs of IDPs.
- End impunity for perpetrators of violence and land grabbing, and give ethnic and religious minorities the same access to rights and protection as the rest of the population.
For more information, visit IDMC’s webpage on South and South-East Asia, and read our latest overview "Bangladesh: comprehensive response required to complex displacement crisis".