The mighty monsoon of Bangladesh has once again triggered flash floods and landslides in the Cox’s Bazar area of Bangladesh where more than one million Rohingyas are living in crowded camps since 2017. The flood of late July claimed 11 Rohingya lives so far, including four children. More than 4,000 shelters had been washed away in a matter of hours, affecting at least 20,000 Rohingyas, many of whom lost the roofs over their head months ago when a deadly fire ripped some camps apart. There had been more than 300 cases of landslides in the late July 2021 alone. The situation is likely to get worse in coming days as the rainy season in Bangladesh reaches its peak in the month of September.
As the ongoing Rohingya crisis rolls into its fifth year in August 2021, the living conditions in the sprawling and squalid camps in southeast Bangladesh manages to decline even further. Currently, around 1.1 million Rohingyas are being sheltered in 34 extremely crammed camps, the largest one being the Kutupalong Balukhali camps which hosts almost half (626,500 in number) of the forcibly displaced people of Myanmar (FDMNs as Bangladesh authority identifies this community). Each of these dilapidated makeshift shelters in camps covers barely 10 square meter area but houses as many as 12 residents. The 2018 World Bank data may provide a genuine perspective on the congestion problem in the camps. With an average of 1,240 people living in per square kilometer land area, Bangladesh stands as the 9th most densely populated country on Earth. China’s Special Administrative Area (SAR), Macao tops the list with an average 19,199 people living in one sq km. land area. In the Rohingya camps of Cox’s Bazar, the population density ranges between 40,000 to 70,000 people per square kilometer, which is two times that of Macao and nine times the national average of Bangladesh.
According to a March 2021 report of Doctors Without Borders, the camps, in the last 12 months, have seen a sharp decline in living conditions, induced by Covid-19, increase in criminal activities, and funding shortfall. A December 2020 study, conducted by Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE), found a spike in the prevalence of hunger with 17.7 percent Rohingyas saying they felt hungrier in the four weeks preceding the study than pre-pandemic time. The percentage of Rohingya households with a poor food consumption rose from 5 to 15 percent. While the living condition of Rohingyas keep falling further and further, each year since 2018 reported increasingly heavy rainfall that led to severe inundation of camps and more devastating landslides, wrecking havocs on Rohingya lives. More than 8,000 acres of reserved forestland were razed to make room for Rohingya camps. Now, amidst increasing natural adversities, the bamboo and tarpaulin sheets that make Rohingya shelters, are finding it harder and harder to cling to these steep and bare hills.
As the Rohingyas find themselves stuck in a limbo, the overall security situation in host area Cox’s Bazar has seen further deterioration in recent times. A local newspaper in an October 2020 article reported the presence of at least 30 organized and violent criminal groups and subgroups active in Rohingya camps, seemingly engaged in an endless turf war. These groups are heavily involved in human trafficking and yaba (cheap methamphetamine) and arms smuggling. Between August 2017 and 2020, there had been at least 61 killings, 35 incidents of rape, and 16 kidnappings. More than 731 FIRs were files against Rohingyas during this period which led to imprisonment of more than 600 Rohingyas. The stalled repatriation process, deteriorating living conditions in Rohingya camps and utter frustration among the Rohingya youth are some of the major reasons that instigated this recent crime spree, locals argue. Such frustration has also made the Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar easy preys to local and trans-border human trafficking gangs as evident in the rising number of Rohingyas boarding on crowded and rickety boats on perilous journeys to third countries.
The tension between the Rohingyas and host community is in all-time high. A July 2021 study published in Journal of International Humanitarian Action suggests that a near 70 percent fall in labor wages, 50 percent hike in prices of daily necessities, uneven access to humanitarian aid and resource opportunities may soon lead to resentment among the host community towards the Rohingyas. Rising resentment may remind the recent wave of xenophobic violence that swept over Turkish city of Ankara, targeting Syrian refugees, a terrible reversal of the community’s previous refugee-welcoming stance. Since the funds to provide basic necessities for the Rohingyas are in sharp decline (86 percent shortfall in the first quarter of 2021), it goes without saying that the existing mechanism is in no way equipped to redress many grievances of the host community. All these makes the current condition a ticking time bomb which can only be diffused via relocation of a sizable portion of Rohingyas elsewhere.
The response of some human rights and development organizations to Bangladesh government’s attempt to relocate 100,000 Rohingyas to the island of Bhasan Char is a curious and myopic one. A majority of allegations made against Bhasan Char relocation is centered on the island being flood-prone. Such critics often tend to forget that the country of Bangladesh as a whole is flood-prone and highly vulnerable to natural calamities. However, compared to the camps in Cox’s Bazar, the settlements in Bhasan Char, in fact, showed much stronger resilience against raging monsoon. Being a flatland area, the island naturally reduces the risk of landslides which claimed 23 lives alone in the month of July 2021 in Cox’s Bazar area. Each of the 120 cluster villages in Bhasan Char has one cyclone shelter, capable of housing 1000 people and 200 cattle. The whole island has been secured with a four-layer embankment that goes 19 feet high. While the camps of Cox’s Bazar house cram up to 12 Rohingyas in a 10 sq. meter makeshift shelter, each Rohingya relocated to Bhasan Char will have an average area of 3.6 meters to himself as his living area, thus aptly solving the overcrowding problem. The reliance on solar-powered lighting system and bio-gas supply line also addresses the question of sustainability and exploitation of resources.
The point of this piece is not to present Bhasan Char as a bed of roses, but to show its enormous potentiality. It is only the meaningful and sincere cooperation between Bangladesh authorities and a wide array of non-governmental, inter-governmental and development organizations which has, so far, made supporting 1.1 million Rohingyas with such limited resources possible. Such cooperation can do wonders in Bhasan Char given the infrastructure provided. Although late, the global community has begun to recognize the real worth of Bangladesh’s effort. A visiting UNHCR delegation in June 2021 expressed their support for relocation of Rohingyas in a ‘phased manner’. Similar appreciation also came from UN General Assembly President Volkan Bozkır who dubbed the initiative as “example of Bangladesh’s humanity“. Parties, government and non-government, must recognize that the suffering of the Rohingyas and the host community has reached a tipping point. Arguments, based on abstract ideals and devoid of concrete action, can only cause disgrace to human dignity.
*Habibir Rahman, an Australia-based independent observer of Rohingya affairs.