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Fire, floods and felonies: Relocation the only option for Rohingya

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In 2019, families were relocated when flooding devastated a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar (Image via Flickr)

Rohingya refugees live in squalid shelters in Bangladesh, but camp conditions have worsened due to floods, fire and internal violence. Relocation is the only solution, writes Habibur Rahman.

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 Rohingya people have been living in crowded camps since 2017.

The flood of late July has 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 Rohingya, many of whom lost the roofs over their heads months ago when a deadly fire ripped some camps apart. There had been more than 300 cases of landslides in late July alone. The situation is likely to worsen as the rainy season in Bangladesh reaches its peak in September.

As the ongoing Rohingya crisis rolls into its fifth year, the living conditions in southeast Bangladesh's sprawling and squalid camps have declined even further. Around a million-plus Rohingya are currently being sheltered in 34 extremely crammed camps, the largest one being the Kutupalong-Balukhali camp, which hosts almost half (more than 600,000) of the forcibly displaced people of Myanma (FDMN as Bangladesh authorities identify this community).

Each of the dilapidated makeshift shelters in these camps barely covers a ten square metre 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 per square kilometre of land area, Bangladesh stands as the ninth most densely populated country on Earth. China's Special Administrative Area (SAR), Macao, tops the list with an average of 19,199 people living on one square kilometre of land area. In the Rohingya camps of Cox's Bazar, the population density ranges between 40,000 to 70,000 people per square kilometre, which is twice that of Macao and nine times the national average of Bangladesh.

According to a 2021 report from Doctors Without Borders, in the last 12 months, the camps have seen a sharp decline in living conditions — induced by COVID-19, increased criminal activities and funding shortfalls.

A 2020 study, conducted by Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE), found a spike in the prevalence of hunger, with 17.7 % of Rohingya people saying they felt hungrier in the four weeks preceding the study than pre-pandemic time. The percentage of Rohingya households with poor food consumption rose from five to 15%. The living condition of Rohingya people keeps falling further and further. Each year since 2018, increasingly heavy rainfall has led to severe inundation of camps and more devastating landslides, wreaking havoc on Rohingya lives.

More than 8,000 acres of reserved forestland were razed to make room for Rohingya camps. Now, amid 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 Rohingya refugees find themselves stuck in limbo, the overall security situation in the host area of Cox's Bazar has seen further deterioration in recent times. A local newspaper reported the presence of at least 30 organised and violent criminal groups and subgroups active in Rohingya camps, seemingly engaged in an endless turf war.

These groups are heavily involved in human and drug (ya ba: cheap methamphetamine) trafficking and arms smuggling. Reports between August 2017 and 2020 indicate there had been at least 61 killings, 35 incidents of rape and 16 kidnappings. More than 731 First Information Report (FIRs) were filed against the Rohingya during this period, which led to the imprisonment of more than 600 Rohingya.

The stalled repatriation process, deteriorating living conditions in Rohingya camps and utter frustration among Rohingya youth are some of the major reasons that instigated this recent crime spree, locals argue. Such frustration has also made the Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar easy prey of local and trans-border human trafficking gangs as is evident in the rising number of Rohingya boarding on crowded and rickety boats to undertake perilous journeys to other countries.  

The tension between the Rohingya and the host community is at an all-time high. A recent study published in Journal of International Humanitarian Action suggests that a near 70% fall in labour wages, a 50% hike in the prices of daily necessities and uneven access to humanitarian aid and resource opportunities may soon lead to resentment among the host community towards the Rohingya.

Rising resentment may resemble the recent wave of xenophobic violence that swept over the 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 Rohingya people are in sharp decline (86% 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 this makes the current condition a ticking time bomb that can only be diffused via the relocation of a sizable portion of Rohingya people elsewhere.

The response of some human rights and development organisations to the Bangladesh Government's attempts to relocate 100,000 Rohingya to the island of Bhasan Char is a curious and myopic one. A majority of allegations made against the case for Bhasan Char relocation is centred on the fact the island is flood-prone. However, such critics 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, show much stronger resilience against raging monsoon. Being a flatland area, the island naturally reduces the risk of landslides that in July alone have claimed at least 24 lives in Cox’s Bazar.

Each of the 120 cluster villages in Bhasan Char has one cyclone shelter capable of housing 1,000 people and 200 cattle. The whole island has been secured with a four-layer embankment that extends 19 feet high. While the camps of Cox’s Bazar cram up to 12 Rohingya into a ten square metre makeshift shelter, each Rohingya relocated to Bhasan Char would have an average area of 3.6 metres as a living area, thus aptly solving the overcrowding problem. The reliance on the solar-powered lighting system and bio-gas supply line also address 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 potential. It is only the meaningful and sincere cooperation between Bangladesh authorities and a wide array of non-governmental, inter-governmental and development organisations which has, so far, made supporting a million-plus Rohingya 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 recognise the real worth of Bangladesh’s effort. A visiting United Nations Human Rights Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) delegation in June this year expressed support for the relocation of the Rohingya in a "phased" manner.

Similar appreciation also came from United Nations General Assembly President Volkan Bozkır, who dubbed the initiative an example of Bangladesh’s humanity.

Stakeholders – government and non-government – must recognise that the suffering of the Rohingya people 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.

Habibur Rahman is a dual citizen of Bangladesh and Australia. He holds a bachelor's degree from Bangladesh and a master's degree from Australia. You can follow Habibur on Twitter @habibur_1997125.

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