Photo: Cox’s Bazar deputy commissioner Md Kamal Hossain visiting Rohingya camp Kutupalong. Credit: Md Mojibur Rahman Rana. - Photo: 2018

A Crisis Within a Crisis for the Rohingyas

By Naimul Haq

DHAKA, Bangladesh (IDN) – Despite a well-coordinated effort to address the Rohingya refugee crisis in Cox’s Bazar, a coastal town bordering Myanmar, some major challenges still need attention.

The local administration admits that with over one million forcibly displaced Myanmar citizens arriving in such a short time, it is indeed difficult to manage the environmental damages and rising crime rates faced by the local people.

Cox’s Bazar deputy commissioner Md Kamal Hossain told IDN that in terms of supplies of food, commodities and household basics efforts have been well coordinated. However, “environmental damage and the crimes rising by the day are major concerns but they are being addressed now and hopefully we would soon find solutions.”

More than 693,000 displaced Myanmar nationals have taken refuge in Bangladesh in 25 separate camps making the clusters the largest in the world. Kutupalong and Balukhali, two of the biggest camps, are hosting over 631,000 refugees who fled their ancestral homes in Rakhine state in Myanmar to escape what they call systematic persecution.

The influx has had a significant impact on the environment and the host population. The land – once green shrub and rows of forest protecting the local communities from gushing winds during storms and frequent wild elephant herd attacks – has literally been turned into a desert as the refugees have been cutting the surrounding trees to use the wood as fuel for cooking and also clear the timber for settlement.

Cox’s Bazar, known as one of Bangladesh’s most vibrant main tourist destinations located some 300 km south east of the capital Dhaka, has been literally awash with foreign aid workers since the influx in August 2017 that suddenly mushroomed in the scenic hilly area.

The area’s hotel managements are prospering, and many Bangladeshis have found jobs with humanitarian organizations. But day laborers and poorer locals have complained about price hikes for basic goods and about losing work to refugees willing to accept far lower wages.

With the flow of refugees still continuing to settle in camps where they find safe haven, the local population is now outnumbered by ‘foreigners’. This situation has created a crisis, with the poorer segment of the local population no longer able to find work as the Rohingyas offer cheaper labour. The idle men without any earnings are also said to be involved in various crimes, including human traffic and drug smuggling.

A glimpse of the Rohingyas settled in Kutupalong camp in Ukhiya upazila of Cox’s Bazar where forest can be seen in the background. Credit: Naiumul Haq | IDN-INPS

Speaking to IDN, Sarwar Jahan Choudhury, Chairman of Ukhiya Upazila in Cox’s Bazar District, said: “It is indeed unfortunate that cheaper labour offered by the Rohingya men have forced many of the local day labourers to leave and seek higher wages in other cities. We have had reports of conflicts with the locals over issues such as finding jobs. Poor people also complain of higher prices of commodities due to the presence of humanitarian agency workers.”

Choudhury said, “On one hand, the economy is thriving due to the reasons of the Rohingya refugee responses while on the other hand, the plight of the local poor people is turning from bad to worse. If this situation continues for a long time the things may turn even worse.”

Local law enforcers also admit that crime rates have increased significantly. A total of 55 Rohingya men have been arrested in the last six months in connection with 19 alleged murders. Other serious crimes, including rape, human trafficking and drug smuggling, have reportedly been operated by special gangs inside refugee camps.

Hossain said that in a move to address the rise in crimes in and around the camps, 11 check points have been set up and more than 1,000 police and 220 Special Forces deployed, and “the army is ready to support in any combined operation regarding law and order issues.”

Meanwhile, to reduce dependency on forests for wood, the district administration has started distributing compressed gas cylinders and kerosene stoves among the refugees.

Asked about the response to denuded forests, Annika Sandlund, Acting Senior Coordinator for the Rohingya refugee response and head of the Inter-Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) in Cox’s Bazar told IDN: “With regard to mitigating the impact on the environment, we are working in close collaboration with the national authorities. A three-year programme has been put in place, led by the Forestry Department, to mitigate risks and ensure that new trees are being planted.”

Sandlund also said that “alternative mechanisms to combat fuel intensive methods of cooking are being put in place. Given the physical location of the camps, these measures had already started within a year of the influx, which is remarkable in terms of linking humanitarian needs to development programmes. This has been made possible due to the government’s commitment to lead the response and help combat climate change in this area.”

According to Sandlund, “the humanitarian response has been successful but remains severely underfunded. We are entering into the cyclone season which could be potentially devastating in the camps. Preparedness measures have been taken, but ultimately if a cyclone makes a landfall in this area, the focus will have to move from preparedness to response. Additional resources will be needed. The risk of a cyclone only adds to the enormous sense of uncertainty the refugees face about their future.”

Meanwhile, sources said that only 40 percent of the Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis (March-December 2018) is funded, and an additional 579 million dollars is required to meet the urgent needs of Rohingya refugees and the local host communities until the end of the year.

There are also concerns that some of the funding for critical programmes will not continue beyond the next few months, putting life saving services at risk. Without this critical funding, essential services may be pared back, compromising the health and well-being of this vulnerable population, 80 percent of whom are women and children.

The camps, located on hilly terrain, remain extremely congested which makes it difficult to relocate families currently living in landslide and flood risk areas. Most of the shelters have been hastily built on undulating and sandy terrain which is susceptible to landslide and flooding. Congestion also leads to protection, health, water and sanitation concerns.

Médecins Sans Frontières – Bangladesh, already playing a leading role in addressing some of the critical challenges of water, sanitation and healthcare issues, said that there is insufficient water supply in terms of both quantity and quality, poor sanitation due to overcrowding and badly-maintained latrines and poor living conditions (refugees still live in bamboo and plastic-sheeting shelters), all of which are elements that contribute to spreading of diseases.

Dr Kazungu Donald Sonne, Deputy Medical Coordinator of MSF in Cox’s Bazar told IDN: “Some of the biggest challenges we face in such a densely-populated setting include the prevention and control of respiratory tract infections, waterborne diseases and vaccine preventable diseases.”

While the efforts to reduce vaccine preventable diseases continue, MSF water and sanitation teams are currently working on water supply, implementing water distribution systems in Kutupalong and Balukali camps that will bring clean and drinkable water to more than 100,000 people.

In the face of this crisis within a crisis, it seems that the voluntary repatriation of the forcibly displaced Myanmar citizens may be further delayed. The plan to repatriate the refugees has been put on hold because of continued violence in Myanmar and anti-Rohingya sentiment. With repatriation delayed, Bangladesh will need more international help. This is not a crisis it can manage alone. [IDN-InDepthNews – 21 October 2018]

Photo (top): Cox’s Bazar deputy commissioner Md Kamal Hossain visiting Rohingya camp Kutupalong. Credit: Md Mojibur Rahman Rana.

Photo (in the text): A glimpse of the Rohingyas settled in Kutupalong camp in Ukhiya upazila of Cox’s Bazar where forest can be seen in the background. Credit: Naiumul Haq | IDN-INPS

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate –

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