NGOs have Tk815 crore funding to run humanitarian programs in the district
The economy of Cox’s Bazar, which boasts the world's longest continuous sea beach, has traditionally been dependant of tourism. However, when the latest chapter in the Rohingya crisis unfolded last year, things began to change.
Since late August last year, more than 700,000 Rohingyas fled violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and came to Cox’s Bazar. More than a million Rohingyas are currently living in the coastal district’s refugee camps.
The number of tourists has plummeted since the refugees’ arrival. With time, the number of foreign delegates visiting the camps increased as various NGOs ramped up their activities; and the tourism sector took advantage of the changing situation.
The influx has pushed up prices of essentials in the district but has also opened up more employment opportunities for the locals.
A total 144 international and local NGOs have set up offices in Cox's Bazar town, Ukhiya and Teknaf. From Cox's Bazar town to Ukhiya and Teknaf upazilas – about 56 kilometres – numerous signs, tents, warehouses, and flags of different NGOs stand out.
The NGO Affairs Bureau, which controls the humanitarian programs in Cox’s Bazar, and releases foreign funds, said the NGOs have Tk815 crore funding to run humanitarian programs in the district.
The NGOs are using the donor funds in nine areas critical for the survival of the Rohingya people—especially for providing shelter and food. More funds are in the pipeline, sources at the NGO Affairs Bureau said.
Abul Kashem Shikdar, general secretary of the Cox's Bazar Hotel-Motel Owners Association, said the influx has had a positive impact on the district’s tourism business.
“The infrastructure of hotels and restaurants has developed as foreigners related to various NGOs stay here,” said Kashem, who is also general secretary of the Federation of Tourism Services Association in Bangladesh and president of Cox's Bazar Restaurant-Hotel Owners Association.
“The NGOs have given the locals a chance to easily find jobs,” he added.
Cox's Bazar Deputy Commissioner Md Kamal Hossein concurred, saying: “The NGOs are doing something good for the host community.”
UN organizations and other NGOs have launched a $950.8 million appeal to provide further humanitarian assistance for the rest of the year to 1.3 million people in Ukhiya and Teknaf—including nearly 400,000 Bangladeshis in the host communities.
As part of it, Bangladesh's government requested the NGOs and INGOs to provide at least 25 to 30 percent of services to the host community in the form of infrastructure work—increasing the capacity of the education system and providing livelihoods to the locals.
The increased activities of the NGOs have boosted local businesses. People who rent their houses, and transport owners, have reported a rise in the number of customers.
Salim, a marketing officer of a private company, said: “There are some benefits to the NGOs’ presence. It mainly offers unemployed people [the chance] to get jobs as drivers, translators, and labourers.”
In the densely-populated settlements of Ukhiya, which hosts 20 camps with 75 percent of Bangladesh’s Rohingya population, NGOs are providing much-needed humanitarian assistance to the refugees.
In close coordination with the government, they have set up health and learning centres; mobile clinics; and friendly spaces for children, women and the elderly— as well as food distribution points, sanitation facilities, and other infrastructure.
Ukhiya Upazila Nirbahi Officer Md Nikaruzzaman Chowdhury said more work on infrastructure was needed to raise the living standards of the host community.
“Both the local NGOs and INGOs have had a positive impact on Ukhiya, but it is very important to engage more local people to improve the quality of their livelihoods,” he added.
Potential for gender equality in jobs
The activities of the NGOs have opened up potential for equal employment.
“There are equal job opportunities for men and women,” local housewife Rahema Khatun said, standing inside her family-owned store.
Local women have jobs in the education, medical, and aid sectors she said, adding: “Women are venturing out of the social boundaries imposed on them."
The Inter Sector Coordination Group says that 919,000 refugees arrived in Bangladesh until this August—while the government has registered more than a million refugees. Refugees outnumber the locals by more than two to one.
Flip side of the coin
Local residents and businessmen say the NGOs have also had a negative impact in the area. Many complained that the local economy was suffering due to the presence of the humanitarian organizations.
Kashem said prostitution and drug smuggling have increased in the tourist town since the influx and blamed the Rohingya refugees "who are not accustomed to our culture."
Transport costs have more than doubled, and prices of daily commodities have also shot up, he added.
House rents have also gone up. A two-bedroom flat used to cost between Tk3,000 to Tk5,000 per month. But after the influx, the monthly rent has gone up to Tk15,000-Tk20,000.
Outside the camps, Rohingyas who came to Bangladesh before the latest influx have set up bustling shops and markets that attract locals because of their cheaper prices.
The aid agencies deliver food essentials – such as rice, lentils, and vegetable oil – to the camps' residents. Some of the refugees sell the surplus items on the black markets for a fraction of the price, compared to local markets, affecting market stability.
Soybean oil, for example, is sold for Tk40 per litre at the Rohingya markets, while local markets sell it for Tk100.
Locals say the prices of household staples have also increased. The price of vegetables, potatoes, and Hilsa fish have doubled.
Saiful Islam, a 29-year-old computer shop owner in Ukhiya, said: “Entrepreneurs and traders are abandoning their businesses to work with NGOs.”
“Many shops are now closed because there is no-one to run them. Labourers have also suffered because Rohingya are more willing to be hired at a cheaper rate,” he added.
Another local Farook said the greater demand for blue-collar jobs is beneficial for some locals even though the payment is low.
“But for people like me, salaries remain the same while the cost of living has gone up,” he said.
Ukhiya UNO Nikaruzzaman said: “Before the NGOs arrived, the locals' income came mainly from the forest, such as wood-cutting and land cultivation. But the forests – up to 5,000 acres – were cut down in order to settle the refugees—depriving the locals of their original jobs.
“Now many of them have been employed by the NGOs to work in the camps, mainly for labourer jobs and for infrastructure development in the camps.”
Peak-hour traffic congestion affects trades
Numerous vehicles of the NGOs ply the narrow and twisting main road from Cox's Bazar to Teknaf via Link Road and Ukhiya—daily.
Jishan, a teenage roadside shop owner, said that business has suffered due to the traffic jams caused by large vehicles.
“My business has decreased as the congestion and dangerous driving is keeping customers – who are usually from Court Bazar Pashchim Para village – and other locals, away. People do not stop by here like they used to,” he said.
“Students from school and other kids used to gather in front of the store for tea and to hang out; but due to the jam-packed roads, they do not come here anymore,” he added.
Porikolpito Cox’s Bazar Andolon’s Coordinator Abdul Alim Nobel said the government should pay more attention to consequences suffered by locals because of the Rohingya influx.
Cox’s Bazar Bacaho Andolon General Secretary Ayasur Rahman said: “Ukhiya and Teknaf are having a tough time after sheltering the Rohingyas. If swift steps are not taken to solve the Rohingya issue then the outcomes will be very bad.”