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Conflict, Disaster, and Disease: A Colossal Catastrophe Looms in the Rohingya Camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

Bayes Ahmed20 April 2020

A panoramic view of the Kutupalong Rohingya camp in Cox’s Bazar district, Bangladesh. Source: Bayes Ahmed, fieldwork, 2019.

On 17 April 2020, another boat floating in the Bay of Bengal for two months was found carrying 30 dead bodies and 400 other Rohingya refugees, mostly women and children, fleeing armed conflict from Myanmar. Also, since 23 March 2020, the Myanmar military has been carrying out daily airstrikes and shelling in Rakhine State resulting in at least 32 civilian deaths, mostly women and children, and destroying homes and schools. The killing of innocent people and civilians by the Myanmar Army/Tatmadaw in Rakhine is still taking place fearlessly despite the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the principal judicial organ of the United Nations (UN), officially endorsed the ‘Rohingya identity’ in January 2020 and ordered the Myanmar government not to commit acts of genocide and take effective measures to prevent the destruction of any evidence related to genocide. The final verdict on the prevention and punishment of the Crime of (Rohingya) Genocide against Myanmar is pending.

The crisis is not new. The Rakhine State of Myanmar and Cox’s Bazar District of Bangladesh share international borders, and both countries were commonly ruled by the British Empire. Being the same colony for over 120 years, eventually, the Muslim Bengalis and Buddhist Rakhine people travelled between the two states (formerly known as the Arakan State) for business, agricultural and other purposes. However, since the independence of Burma in 1948, the Muslim population in Rakhine have been labelled as ‘illegal Bengali migrants’ and later on referred to as the Rohingyas. Failing to permanently expel the Rohingyas from Rakhine, the Burmese (Military) government, introduced a citizenship law in October 1982 stating that “full citizens are descendants of residents who lived in Burma prior to 1823 or were born to parents who were citizens at the time of birth”. The amended law has a clear link with the Muslim migration during the British rule in Burma between 1824-1948. Eventually, the Rohingyas lost their citizenship and became stateless.

Since then persistent torture, human rights violation and persecution followed by a number of major military crackdowns, a genocidal policy adopted by the Myanmar Army, communal violence between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine, and killing and murder of innocent civilians and burning down their homestead resulted in the forced displacement of Rohingyas to Bangladesh notably in 1978, 1992, 2012, 2016, 2017, and in 2019. Recently, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) estimated that at least 6,700 people lost their lives due to direct violence in Myanmar between 25 August and 24 September 2017. The UN estimates that over one million stateless Rohingya are still remaining in Rakhine State (600,000 displaced and 470,00 non-displaced). The actual number is unknown due to fabrication in Myanmar’s national population census and strategically replacing the names of local villages/townships. The Rohingyas are facing extreme discrimination and are being denied basic humanitarian access, livelihoods and services in Myanmar. In contrast, Bangladesh is currently hosting over 860,000 Rohingyas (78% of them are women and children) in the UN registered camps in Cox’s Bazar and over 300,00 of them are hiding as undocumented refugees. The crisis has adversely impacted more than 444,000 Bengali host community members in Cox’s Bazar.

An enormous protected area of hill forests in Cox’s Bazar district (6,000 hectares) has already been wiped out to build makeshift shelters by cutting hills and to arrange fuel for cooking for the Rohingyas. They are living in camps that are absolutely vulnerable to landslides, flash flooding, cyclones, and fire hazards. Between April to November 2019, at least 1400, 500, 70, and 35 major incidents were reported across all camps related to landslide/soil erosion, wind/storm, flood, and fire hazard respectively. As a result, over 85,000 individuals were affected and 4,000 households were displaced to another location. No effective early warning system is available for them, although the partners are consistently working to make the camps weather-proof and resilient to natural hazards.

Multi-hazard prone Rohingya makeshift camps in Cox’s Bazar district, Bangladesh. Source: Bayes Ahmed, fieldwork, 2018-2020 and Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG), 2019.

The Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar are not allowed to move outside the camps and build permanent shelters. No formal education is also allowed. They depend on nominal humanitarian assistance from the UN such as basic food (rice, palm oil, and lentils). These embargos are imposed mostly to comply with the standard UN refugee mandates. The novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is posing another major threat to the Rohingyas, as they are living in exceedingly overcrowded camps and the existing health centres are not equipped with necessary testing and treatment facilities. The same situation applies to the host communities. As instructed by the UN, the partners are advancing with the construction of an isolation and treatment centres, reducing activities to essential services and assistances only, promoting hygiene activities, training healthcare workers, and ensuring social distancing inside the camps. As of 20 April 2020, the entire Cox’s Bazar district including the camps are now locked down, and no Rohingya is even allowed to move between two camps until further notice.

Activities are undertaken to prevent COVID-19 outbreak in the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar district, Bangladesh. Source: Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG), 2020.

The Rohingyas are also afraid to go back to Myanmar as they suspect fresh attacks on them by the Myanmar Army. The repatriation process is halted. The Rohingyas have strong community bonding and trying their best to adapt in this dreadful situation, however, all these efforts are not enough to ensure resilient futures for them. Given the international and national resolutions, the only sustainable solution for the Rohingya refugees would be to repatriate them in Myanmar with safety and dignity. 

Overall, the genocide-fled Rohingyas and already over-stressed Bangladeshi host communities in Cox’s Bazar are not ready to face the impending threats of natural hazard-induced disasters and Coronavirus pandemic. If, for example, a landslide/cyclone disaster and COVID-19 outbreak collide in the coming months, then it would be another catastrophic humanitarian crisis. The threat is inevitable, but nobody knows any decisive remedy to tackle it. Now, we can only pray for a strong cyclone or consecutive torrential rainfall events not to occur during the cyclone and monsoon season (May-November) or the Coronavirus not to spread in the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar. Yet, there is no hope for their sustainable repatriation, integration, third-country settlement, or justice. The situation is somewhat true or even worse for the remaining 70 million displaced people worldwide – their sufferings have no limits!

Even a pod of whales can travel from the Indian to the Atlantic Ocean, a flock of birds can fly from one continent to the other, but unfortunately, we have created such a sickening (in)human civilisation where a group of distressed people fleeing war, conflict, climate change and natural disasters are not allowed to move freely or even claim basic human rights for their minimal level of survival. This is the bitter truth! The only long-lasting solution to this grave crisis would be to fully support global truce (including the insurgents and militias), end hatred and discrimination towards minority and refugee population, and promote peace, sustainable economic growth, and global and regional cooperation gradually.

Rohingya camps in the no man’s land in Tumbru, Naikhongchari Upazila, Bandarban district, Bangladesh. Source: Bayes Ahmed, fieldwork, 2018.

Author: Dr Bayes Ahmed, UCL IRDR