The Kutupalong-Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh, more widely known by the anglicised name of its nearest town, Cox’s Bazar, is currently the world’s largest refugee camp. It is thought that over 1 million Rohingya Muslims currently live there, having fled persecution in their native state of Rakhine in Myanmar. Alongside all the well-documented sanitary and hygiene challenges faced by all such densely packed temporary settlements, Cox’s Bazar has the added misfortune of facing its own unique environmental problems. A large portion of the camp lies on previously forested land, which has been cut down in order to build dwellings as the camp has grown. This land is also considerably hilly but is lacking in any rock foundations. As Atiq Rahman, the executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS) has said, “In Bangladesh these are not rocky hills, they are soft soil hills. The stability comes from the roots of the trees, if you cut the trees you have destabilised the terrain and there is a risk of hill collapse.” Deforestation will only continue, as more land is required for the expansion of the camp and wood is required for fuel – over 95% of the inhabitants use wood fires, and only a tiny minority use the liquid petroleum gas (LPG) canisters provided by NGOs. Thus, there is a strong likelihood of a major environmental disaster should the land slide; this is only exacerbated by the approach of the monsoon and cyclone season in May or June. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has estimated that currently over 23,000 people are at risk of being caught in landslides in the camp (UNHCR, 2019). The problem is only set to get worse, as a June 2018 World Bank report found that should greenhouse gas emissions continue in their current trend, by 2050 Cox’s Bazar will be the “worst-hit district in South Asia” (Al Jazeera, 2018).
The NGOs in action in Bangladesh are currently focussed on short-term crisis response, seeking to alleviate the more immediate concerns of such a densely populated camp, namely disease and sanitation. “They are still working in emergency mode,” said Saleemul Huq, the director of the Bangladesh-based International Centre for Climate Change and Development. “The long-term impacts are very uncertain.” While numerous organisations have developed plans to care for the refugees, their preparations for a sudden environmental catastrophe are woefully inadequate. Medicins sans Frontieres (MSF), who are one of the most involved NGOs in the region, has a “mass casualty management plan” in the worst-case scenario of a humanitarian disaster hitting the camp (MSF, 2019). This is, however, a reactionary plan, rather than a preventive one. Long-term plans must be put in place in order to avoid, rather than just deal with, a massive loss of life. A key part of the problem is the sheer number of people who have a stake in the camp. The continuing influx of Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh requires an ever-expanding array of medical centres, latrine blocks, water provisions, and people to administer such vital infrastructure. All this in turn requires the injection of funding, not only from the NGOs present in the camp but also from the Bangladeshi government. While the government had made positive steps towards a long-term solution in 2017 by engaging in talks with the Myanmar government, the talks – and the subsequent agreement which was signed by both countries to repatriate many of the Rohingya – have failed to be actioned upon. According to the deal made at the end of the talks, the repatriation was supposed to begin within two months. However, Myanmar’s unwillingness to create an environment respectful to the rights of the Rohingyas prevented any positive action occurring. Such a response, while a step towards long-term goals, has been criticised by international agencies as it failed to address the desires of the Rohingya people. The hostile and volatile situation in Myanmar makes repatriating the Rohingya a complex issue. If the Rohingya are to return, it must be ensured that they will not be returning to continued persecution. Tensions between the Rohingya and locals in south-east Bangladesh are also increasing, as the initial goodwill of the locals has been subsumed under the tide of refugees who have arrived. The short-term vision of the aid organisations has led to the unintended consequence of a settlement which is becoming more and more permanent by the day, as long-term needs build up and put a strain on the current provisions.
Considering the vast scale of the issue and all its complexities it is unsurprising that the Bangladeshi authorities are overwhelmed. In order to effect an adequate long-term strategy, there are three elements of the current “solutions” which must be addressed. These are as follows: a greater role must be taken by the various international entities which support the camp; a greater level of coordination must be effected between the Bangladeshi government and the various NGOs operating in the region; and a solid plan for long-term resettlement within Bangladesh and neighbouring countries must be established.
The camp is currently supported by seven international agencies: the European Union, the United States, Canada, Japan, Finland, Sweden, and the IKEA Foundation. These organisations, along with the UNHCR and the Bangladeshi government, are the key organisers of aid and support to the camp. However, each one of them acts largely independently of one other – leading to overlapping jurisdictions of authority and disorganized response. Their current remit is also only the provision of aid and supplies for the various organisations which work within the camp. If all of these groups combined under the UNHCR, it would make it easier to allay the short-term problems, such as the issues of hygiene, disease and sanitation. Optimizing the efficiency of these organizations in such a way would greatly improve issues like acute malnutrition in children of 6-59 months, which is currently way over the emergency threshold of 15% (UNHCR). An effectively coordinated strategy could improve the base level of health and wellbeing, ensuring that the population are healthy and prepared for either a return to Myanmar or movement elsewhere, should they so choose.
As a centralised response force the UNHCR would then be able to work with both the Bangladeshi and Myanmar governments, in order to facilitate a long-term plan for the relocation of the Rohingya people from such an environmentally unstable location. While relocation may seem counter-intuitive after the implementation of the suggestions made above, it is necessary for the preservation of life. While it is not in the capability of every government to preclude acts of natural disaster, where it has been identified that there is a strong possibility of a disaster, and particularly in a nation so densely populated as Bangladesh where tens of thousands could be killed, it is imperative that some form of action be taken. As the UNHCR would already be in the process of working with the Rohingya at the camp level, they would also be able to involve them in the decision-making process, ensuring the effective self-determination of the Rohingya people. This would then allow for constructive talks at the national level, at which the UN itself would need to play an important role in securing the rights of the Rohingya in Myanmar are respected. While the question of the Rohingya remaining in Bangladesh, moving elsewhere or being repatriated is ultimately the decision of the Rohingya themselves, in conjunction with the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar, it is of key importance that they are allowed to practice their religion without fear of persecution. Myanmar must be warned in no uncertain terms that sanctions or other similar peaceful measures will be imposed should they fail to safeguard the rights of the Rohingya as equal citizens under the law.
While discussions take place at the international level, the UNHCR would also need to hold talks with the Bangladeshi government over the possible relocation of the Rohingya within Bangladesh. This is arguably the first priority of any response to the current crisis due to the imminent possibility of wide-scale destruction from landslides or other natural disaster. The protection of life is the most important element of any solution; while the relocation of nearly a million people is no small feat, particularly considering the vast array of infrastructure and services integral to the wellbeing of the inhabitants, removal from immediate danger should be preferred to a response which would only deal with the consequences of a disaster. While reluctance on the part of the Bangladeshi government would be expected, it would be made clear that the measure would prevent the possibility of a massive humanitarian crisis among an already vulnerable population. A more temporary camp, or camps, could then be planned out to accommodate the Rohingya. As no previous refugee camp has ever been planned to any great extent, this would be beneficial in several ways. Provision of clean water, sanitary buildings, robust accommodation and higher quality hospitals could all be prepared in advance at an environmentally sound location. While this would undoubtedly be an expensive venture, particularly to transport all the refugees adequately to a new location, it would pale in comparison to the expenses an environmental crisis would incur on the current camp.
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