Harsh Realities of Life Inside the Rohingya Refugee Camps of Cox’s Bazar

A young girl gazes into our vehicle inside the Kutupalong settlement Cox's Bazar
A young girl gazes into our vehicle inside the Kutupalong settlement

Heart beating, palms racing, I got into the back seat of the UN vehicle that was to take me inside the Rohingya Refugee Camps on the outskirts of Cox’s Bazar.Since learning about the violence committed against Rohingyas in the Rakhine state in 2016, and about the influx of Rohingya refugees to Cox’s Bazar in 2017, I have always been curious to visit and learn more about the refugee situation on the grounds.

Prior to arrival, I had been warned by an acquaintance who worked in the field that the refugee situation has become increasingly politically sensitive in Bangladesh, and that I should even refrain from telling the immigration officers at Dhaka airport that I would be coming to Cox’s Bazar. As much as I heeded the advice, lying to border security is never a good move. I was happy to find that aside from being questioned about a missing block letter in my address of stay, I passed through immigration without much of a problem.

Getting to Cox’s Bazar was one thing but getting to the refugee camps required a whole other level of planning. The biggest of the settlements, the Kutupalong expansion site, houses about 600,000 refugee on 13 square kilometers, and takes about an hour and a half to reach by car from Cox’s Bazar city, on some very bumpy roads. Not only that, but the roads are also peppered with police checkpoints, and anyone found heading to the camps without proper documentation from the Office of the Refugee Relief & Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) may be questioned and detained.

A man walks past a local corner shop in Ukhia Cox's Bazar
A man walks past a local corner shop in Ukhia
Clustered dirt paved street filled with people and green tuk tuks in Cox's Bazar
The clustered dirt paved street filled with people and green tuk tuks
A crowded market in Cox's Bazar with political campaign posters
A crowded market that sells fresh produce under overhung political campaign posters

The cruise down the beach side of the Bay of Bengal, past the Himchari National Park, was quite pleasant, so was the river and rice fields, but the scenery soon shifted as we reached epicenter of the outskirt districts. The ride became bumpier, the air became thicker with dust spectacles, bits and pieces of trash littered the grounds, and the roads became more congested with pedestrians, trucks, rik shaws, and tuk tuks alike. Shacks of local shops lined up on two sides of the road, as the people hustled along their daily routine in the hot scorching sun. Life was hard even outside of the camps.

Trash and debris litter the dirt paved streets in Cox's Bazar
Trash and debris litter the dirt paved streets
Manual laborers arranging bamboo sticks in Cox's Bazar
Manual laborers arranging bamboo sticks
A young Bangladeshi girl rushes to school in Cox's Bazar
A young Bangladeshi girl rushes to school
Green tuk tuks in the morning traffic towards rohingya kutupalong refugee camps
Tuk tuks align side by side with vehicles in the morning traffic leading to the direction of the camps
A row of UNHCR storage tents near kutupalong camps
A row of UNHCR storage tents on the outskirts of the camps

After passing numerous aid organization field offices and witnessing what is known as “humanitarian traffic” (what occurs when aid workers all come into the refugee camps for the day before noon and again when they leave in the afternoon), we finally arrived at the outskirts of Camp 7. The camp area is divided in 34 camps, each managed by a Camp-in-Charge officer (CIC) and a variation of different INGOs, who helps settle disputes and provides for the daily needs of refugees respectively.

The first task of the day for my fellow companion was to facilitate the settlement of a land dispute, a common problem in the area. Not only has there been a major deforestation effort to support the camp expansions, various lands are also being rented from local Bangladeshis by INGOs to support activities such as materials distribution.

Newly cleared space for kutupalong camp construction
Walking into the newly cleared space for construction

This particular case involved a landowner who had already signed over the lease but was reluctant to have a certain feature removed from the land in the reconstruction efforts. As we walked into the almost empty lot, the construction efforts seem to already be under way with the Site Maintenance and Engineering Project (SMEP)- a joint initiative by the IOM, UNHCR, and the WFP, to prepare land for relocation and improve overall camp infrastructure- bulldozers at bay. At a certain point of the negotiations, some government officials from the Forestry Department also came over and we discovered that the land actually belonged to the state under the Forestry Department and they were planning to build a water network underneath it. The “landowner” who had signed over the lease was in fact, just a long-term resident. Nevertheless, everyone was able to have a say and will have to work together to decide on how the land will be utilized. Another meeting had been scheduled for further joint discussions.

At half past noon, we got back into the van and headed off to another camp site for some administrative work. We passed by the point of the camp closest to the Myanmar border, where many Rohingya refugees had to make the journey by foot and cross over in order to reach safe grounds. I was told this area is an open border, as the Myanmar government desperately wanted to drive the Rohingyas out of their lands, and the Bangladeshi government had been willing to take them in up until May 1st, 2019.

A family of four sells clothing items on the side of the road at kutupalong camp
A family of four sells clothing items on the side of the road
Men taking a break from work under the scorching sun at the kutupalong camp
Men taking a break from work under the scorching sun

Moments into the main road between the camps, we were stuck in another noon-time traffic. This time, the reason was unknown and we were barely moving. On top of that, the little cell phone coverage that I had on the outskirts of the camp was gone, as the Bangladeshi government has banned network coverage within the camps since September this year, due to “security” concerns over crimes and violence. This eliminates the little connection that this vulnerable population has with the outside world and makes professional communications within the camps a headache.

Men idling around near a corner shop at the kutupalong camp
Men idling around near a corner shop
Women and children hustle along the main camp road of rohingya refugee camp
Women and children hustle along the main camp road

I watched impatiently outside my windows, while observing the mixture of the local population and Rohingyas along the main road. Some Rohingyas were hired for the camp reconstruction efforts, and there were some men that carried along heavy construction materials for the job. Sadly, child labor was prevalent, as with the rest of Bangladesh, and a couple of children carried carts of drinks to sell by the cars.

straw houses at the kutupalong rohingya refugee camps
makeshift huts with bamboo and plastic roofs at kutupalong camp
Views of the makeshift huts with bamboo and plastic roofs

The call to prayers sounded at 1 p.m., and I was almost surprised to hear them while stuck in standstill traffic, with open fields to my left and shanty bamboo huts to my right. I was even more surprised to learn that there were on average about 30 mosques in 1 camp. The thought that the Muslim Rohingyas, who had suffered violent persecution in Myanmar partially due to their faith, were able to at least find some religious solace in these harsh camp conditions gave me some comfort.

After an hour in slow moving traffic, we finally discovered the culprit for the jam- a truck full of bamboo sticks that spilled over on the side of the road. It was smooth sailing, or as smooth as the bumpy roads will allow for, after that.

Long lines outside the Office of the Camp-in-Charge at kutupalong camp
Long lines outside the Office of the Camp-in-Charge (CIC)
warning messages against trafficking at the kutupalong camp office
An ad at the CIC Office that warns against trafficking, a rising phenomenon as human traffickers prey on vulnerable populations inside the camps

We finally arrived at the destination camp outside the office of the CIC, which just looked like a slightly larger makeshift shaft, with a long row of people lined up outside waiting to have their concerns addressed. I remember in great details the face of an agonizing mother who seemed to be filing a complaint while pointing to the head of her young child, who looked to be in even greater pain. Inside the camps, violence, rape, and trafficking are not uncommon, as regulations are hard to enforce with the sudden influx of such a large population. I was told after the curfew of 4 p.m., set for aid workers, only government and military personnel are allowed to patrol the camps.

Some shops owned by locals and refugees inside Camp 14 kutupalong
Some shops owned by locals and refugees inside Camp 14
Paved roads inside the camp filled with busy pedestrians and playful children at kutupalong refugee camp
Paved roads inside the camp filled with busy pedestrians and playful children

As I walked further along the camp, being the most foreign looking person around, I received lots of stares, but along them also came lots of warm smiles. I smiled back earnestly.

A UNICEF supported therapeutic center for malnourished children at kutupalong refugee camp
A UNICEF supported therapeutic center for malnourished children
A legal assistance center supported by UNHCR at kutupalong refugee camp
A legal assistance center supported by UNHCR
A man walks past an IOM tent with the words “Information is Aid” at kutupalong refugee camp
A man walks past an IOM tent with the words “Information is Aid”

Healing centers, safe spaces for women and children, health centers, and learning centers peppered the paved roads leading into the camp, along with food vendors, making the place seem like a mini township. Women walked together under colorful umbrellas, teenagers playfully hit each other with rods, and children yelled out “hello” to us. Under the harsh environmental conditions, the joint efforts of the Bangladeshi government and the support of the aid organizations has made this place a bit more habitable. I am not a huge supporter of the “aid industry,” but at this instance, I saw their immense value in supporting the world’s most vulnerable population in creating a temporary home, where they may be free of the violent prosecution they faced in Myanmar for simply being who they are.

Some smiling children sitting on the side of the dirt roads at kutupalong refugee camp
Some smiling children sitting on the side of the dirt roads

It saddened me to know that many children were born into these camps, and that this world of such limited opportunities is the only one that they know. Through prior engagements with acquaintances that worked in the camps, I learned that birth control measures were not widely accepted and used, resulting in numerous births in these unfortunate circumstances. Even in cases where contraceptives were taken up, they were mostly done so by the women, as the stigma against contraceptives is harder to break among men in the community. Religious convictions are behind the stigma, and with polygamy being a common practice among the population, families have had up to 19 children. Such high birth rates not only put a tremendous strain on the already limited aid supplies and fragile local infrastructure, but also contributes to the build up of tensions between the refugee and host communities, as refugees now outnumber the host community in Cox’s Bazar three times over.

A man rides a rickshaw as a women rushes her kids along the road Cox's Bazar
A man rides a rickshaw as a women rushes her kids along the road

Much of the local communities in the region are also socio-economically vulnerable themselves, earning below the national average. Industry has been hard to develop in the region so men (I barely saw any local women in the work force in the Cox’s Bazar region) in the local communities often found work in agriculture or in unskilled labor. However, with the influx of refugees there has been a surge in cheap labor, as the Rohingyas are usually willing to work for less, giving rise to competition in the labor market. In addition, to make more cash, it has become common practice for refugees to sell their aid rations to local communities, driving down the prices of basic necessities for local business owners. Evidence of this can be easily found, as basic items with aid organization logos can be seen in random street side shops. Local residences have admitted to buying aid rations from the refugee communities because it is often of better quality at a lower cost.

The refugee community has also put a tremendous strain on the local ecology, as thousands of acres of forests had to be cleared to make more space for the temporary settlements. This created a loss of biodiversity as well as disturbances in local agricultural processes. Add that on top of the hygiene risks and strain on public services, it is not hard to see why the Bangladeshi government is unwilling to take in any more refugees.

A solution must come from the policy level, yet with Myanmar unwilling to recognize the rights of the Rohingyas, and the large majority of refugees in Bangladesh not classified by the Bangladeshi government as “refugees,” but rather “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals,” a near-term solution can seem out of reach.

Myanmar Burma national registration identification card for Rohingyas
This national registration card, was given to non-foreign male residents of Myanmar, then known as Burma, after 1951. Female residents received a pink equivalent.

Unlike the case with the Syrian refugee crisis, there lacks a strong Rohingya voice that can speak on behalf of his/her people on the international stage and campaign for their collective rights. Within Myanmar, the 1982 Citizen Act of Myanmar denied Rohingyas who’d been residing in the country their citizenship, thereby limiting their rights to education. Within the camps, the Bangladeshi government has denied accredited education to the Rohingya children, and only learning centers operated by various NGOs are permitted to provide basic education for young children.

A Rohingya representative speaks about the plight of his people while holding up his state issued national registration card as proof that he is a rightful citizen of Myanmar

During a regional consultation on territorial conflict & peace in Thailand, I had the chance to engage with a Rohingya refugee representative and discuss with him about the systematic denial of rights to education from his people. He said with a troubled face that unfortunately, what is left of the well educated Rohingya population is mostly that of the older generation, who were able to receive an education before the wide-spread ethnic persecutions in Myanmar. The younger generation of Rohingyas are in essence, a lost generation.

The ugly truth is that as a population of mostly uneducated and unskilled laborers, the Rohingya refugees will find few nations that are willing to take them in and resettle them permanently within their borders. To deny the new generation of Rohingyas an education however, is to deny them hope for a better future beyond the borders of the camp enclaves. If we cannot fight for their return to their home in Myanmar, then we must at least fight for their right to a dignified education.

Workers and children stand outside of a learning center in Camp 14 of kutupalong rohingya refugee camp
Workers and children stand outside of a learning center in Camp 14

Such thoughts filled my head as we shuffled out of the camp before the 4 p.m. curfew, with the bright smiles of the Rohingya children that I’ve encountered along the way forever imprinted in my mind. Who we become is largely pre-determined by where we were born, and in a just world, no children should be born and raised in a space deprived of hope and opportunities.

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