The Platform

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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 have lived in crowded camps since 2017. Late July flooding claimed 11 Rohingya lives, including four children. More than 4,000 shelters were 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 were more than 300 landslides in July alone. The situation is likely to get worse in the 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, the living conditions in the sprawling and squalid camps in southeast Bangladesh manages to decline even further. Currently, around 1.1 million Rohingya are being sheltered in 34 extremely cramped camps, the largest one being the Kutupalong Balukhali camps which hosts 626,500 Rohingya. Each of these dilapidated makeshift shelters in camps covers barely a 10 square meter area but houses as many as 12 residents. 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. China’s Macao tops the list with an average of 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 report by Doctors Without Borders, the camps, in the last 12 months, have seen a sharp decline in living conditions, induced by COVID-19, an increase in criminal activities, and funding shortfall. A December 2020 study, conducted by Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence, found a spike in the prevalence of hunger with 17.7 percent Rohingya 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 5 to 15 percent. While the living condition of Rohingya keeps falling further and further, each year since 2018 reported increasingly heavy rainfall that 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, 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 Rohingya find themselves stuck in limbo, the overall security situation in the 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 filed against 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 the 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 preys to local and trans-border human trafficking gangs as evident in the rising number of Rohingya boarding crowded and rickety boats on perilous journeys to third countries.

The tension between the Rohingya and the host community is at an all-time high. A July study published in the Journal of International Humanitarian Action suggests that a near 70 percent fall in labor wages, a 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 Rohingya. Rising resentment may remind 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 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 make the current condition a ticking time bomb which can only be diffused via relocation of a sizable portion of Rohingya elsewhere.

The response of some human rights and development organizations to the Bangladesh government’s attempt to relocate 100,000 Rohingya to the island of Bhasan Char is a curious and myopic one. A majority of allegations made against Bhasan Char relocation are 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 in Cox’s Bazar area. 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 goes 19 feet high. While the camps of Cox’s Bazar house cram up to 12 Rohingya 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 systems and bio-gas supply lines 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 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 recognize the real worth of Bangladesh’s effort. A visiting UNHCR delegation in June 2021 expressed their support for the relocation of Rohingya in a “phased manner.” Similar appreciation also came from Volkan Bozkır, the president of the UN General Assembly, who dubbed the initiative as an “example of Bangladesh’s humanity.” Parties, government and non-government, must recognize that the suffering of the Rohingya and the host community has reached a tipping point. Arguments, based on abstract ideas and devoid of concrete action, can only cause disgrace to human dignity.

Habibir Rahman is an Australia-based independent observer of Rohingya affairs.