Destitute Rohingya refugees turn to drug trade; fuel influx of illegal substances into Bangladesh

newsimageOn a messy bed in a hut within the Kutupalong refugee camp, Cox’s Bazar, sits Munira, 30, with her two children. Munira is a registered refugee; her Rohingya family fled Myanmar when she was just three. This windowless shack, lit up by a single bulb, isn't hers. Neither is Munira her real name. Munira perfers to remain anonymous because she has done something illegal. “I used to carry Yaba tablets,” she tells us, chewing betel nut, voice not rising above above a whisper. Yaba is known as 'Baba' among Bangladesh's drug addicts. It is known also as 'the madness drug' or 'Nazi speed'. A blend of many stimulants, it has a high proportion of caffeine and methamphetamine (aka crystal meth). According to a 2015 report from the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the pills typically weigh about 90 mg and are available in many different shapes and colours. Methamphetamine is categorised as a Schedule II substance and is illegal under the Controlled Substances Act. (Other Schedule II substances include cocaine and PCP (Phencyclidine, or angel dust). ver the past few months, Munira has acted as a drug carrier on three occasions. "I have three children, my husband is in jail and I don’t have any source of income," she says, of why she chose to carry drugs. Previously, Munira worked at a soap centre run by the UNHCR for refugees in camps. She earned 2,300 Taka a month, making laundry soap. But that was not sufficient for a family of four. “I heard from my friends that one could earn a lot more by transporting drugs," she says. The drug trade offers a way for the refugees — who are not allowed to work legally in Bangladesh — to earn money. Munira would collect the drugs from Palungkhali camp — a 25-minute tuktuk ride from Kutupalong camp. There, under a bridge, she'd meet a peddler whose face she has never seen. “The people involved in the drug trade follow me from the point of collection to delivery. They would find me; I don't know who they are," she explains. After collecting the package from the peddler, she would return to Kutupalong, repack it, and deliver it at Cox’s Bazar bus terminal. “For every trip from Palungkhali to Kutupalong, I would get 500 Taka, and 1,000 Taka to go from Kutupalong to Cox’s Bazar,” Munira says. That's half a month's salary she earned at the soap factory — made in one ride. From negligible Yaba sales a decade ago, Bangladesh has become a big market for traffickers who source the drug from factories in northeastern Myanmar, according to the UNODC’s 2015 report. Available in bright hues — pink, red, green, yellow — the pills have added to the explosion of illegal drugs in Bangladesh, delivering a second setback after the refugee influx last year from Myanmar. “The same Myanmar army which has persecuted the Rohingya, uses them as carriers to send drugs into Bangladesh,” alleges Didarul Alam Rashed, the executive director of Non-Governmental Organisation for National Goals to be Obtained and Retained (NONGOR), a Bangladeshi non-profit outfit which runs rehabilitation centers for addicts in Cox’s Bazar. “Today 80 percent of drug users in Bangladesh are on Yaba. In 2002, very few people were affected by Yaba, maybe 100. But now, around 60,000 people are using Yaba in Cox’s Bazar on a daily basis. Film stars, doctors, teachers, house-wives, students are all taking Yaba pills,” Rashed says. Yaba pills can be taken orally, or inhaled. The pills elevate mood, heighten alertness, and make the user feel energetic. The pills are also promoted as libido enhancers, though there is no proof that Yaba actually influences the sex drive. Another myth that many women users buy into, is Yaba's power as a slimmer. Students think Yaba will help them concentrate better. Once favoured by Dhaka’s elites and entertainment industry, its consumption has become mainstream, and skyrocketed, over the past few years. "Yaba is destroying the young generation," Rashed rues. Over time, Yaba use leads to hallucinations, insomnia, anxiety, depression, liver and kidney disorders, suicidal tendencies; an overdose could lead to death. Between January and March 2018, the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) and coast guards seized nearly nine million methamphetamine pills. According to Cox’s Bazar District additional superintendent of police Afrazul Haque Tutul, the size and weight of the pill make it easier to smuggle in from th