How the Rohingya refugee crisis is impacting the local communities in Cox's Bazar
Kutupalong – the largest refugee camp in the world. As I walked inside one of the blocks of Kutupalong in Ukhia Upazila in Cox’s Bazar District with a team of researchers, I was overwhelmed by the number of makeshift tents and Rohingya refugees around me. The hills of Ukhia Upazila have been cut, trees have been stripped off and dirt roads have been built to accommodate the persecuted Rohingyas community fleeing from the neighbouring Myanmar.
As of April 2018, Kutupalong-Balukhali Expansion Site near Naf River is home to 608,715 Rohingyas, making it the most populous refugee site in the world. There are approximately 905,418 Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar and more than 200,000 Rohingyas are scattered across Bangladesh (ISCG Situation Report May 2018).
Whenever we started to talk to one refugee, 20 others surrounded us in the hope that someone would hear what they have to say or in hope of getting aid. But it is nearly impossible to understand what they are saying without an interpreter, even though their language is similar to the local Bangla dialect spoken in Cox’s Bazar. One or multiple family members were murdered or tortured in almost every house we visited.
The Rohingyas have suffered unbearable violence and grave injustice – there is no question about that. However, the humanitarian aspect of the Rohingya issue is only one dimension of the crisis. There are many layers to this unique multidimensional problem which affects the host communities too, i.e. Bangladeshi locals in Cox’s Bazar and consequently the entire country.
The environmental impact of the crisis is one such aspect, which includes destruction of the forests in Cox’s Bazar or what’s left of it. The hills, once covered with thousands of species of trees, plants and wildlife, are now filled with refugee shelters and services. It is reported that more than 2,000 hectors of forestry has been destroyed so far to establish the Rohingya settlements. Collection of firewood by both the host community and refugees on a daily basis is putting more strain on the remaining forest land.
Overfishing and other harmful practices is putting a strain on the already deceasing marine resources. Furthermore, the Kutupalong-Balukhali site lies along one of main migratory routes of Asian elephants – only 268 of which are remaining in Bangladesh. This has and will create more conflict between the refugees and the elephants, which will ultimately lead to further loss in our biodiversity.
It is reported that more than 2,000 hectors of forestry has been destroyed so far to establish the Rohingya settlements
Drinkable water is short in supply in Cox’s Bazar, especially within the Teknaf Upazila. Therefore, access to drinking water has become even scarcer mainly in Ukhia and Teknaf Upzailas where majority of the refugees have settled down. This is affecting both the host communities and the refugees, especially during dry seasons.
The government is struggling to contain the water and air-borne diseases carried by Rohingyas who had limited, if any, access to vaccinations and healthcare in their country. Diseases like diphtheria, respiratory tract infection, diarrhea, dysentery and skin diseases are very common in the camps, which may cause an outbreak beyond the camp putting the host communities in high risk.
It is reported that prices of daily food items including rice, pulse oil, sugar and salt have increased in the local markets of Cox’s Bazar after the refugee influx, which negatively impacts mainly the local Bengali population since Rohingyas are still receiving great amount of ration.
The host community had access to low quality government health facilities even before the Rohingya influx, as Cox’s Bazar is one of the ‘lagging districts’ in the country. The sudden rise in demand for medicines and health services in the district puts more pressure on the limited available facilities, which may deprive the locals.
Human and drug trafficking have skyrocketed in Cox’s Bazar, a district which is already known as a dreadful base for trafficking and organized crime groups. Trafficking of girls from the Rohingya camps often goes unchecked, which has complex effects in addition to violation of their basic human rights. The high crime rate is putting the locals in a vulnerable situation exposed to violence, drug abuse, trafficking and prostitution.
The economy of the district is mainly dependent on unskilled labour for which the locals now have to compete with the Rohingyas. Moreover, social safety net programs have been suspended for the host communities because of added pressure on the local government institutions.
On a positive note, more than 100 NGOs and INGOs are currently implementing projects in the refugee sites which is generating unique labor and employment opportunities. It is also benefiting the tourist industry in Cox’s Bazar including hotels and modes of transportation due to the massive influx of both foreign and domestic development workers.
The effects of Rohingya crisis on host communities have so far received little attention from international aid agencies. Despite so many NGOs and INGOs now working in Cox’s Bazar, the situation and needs of the host communities are still not assessed in a holistic and systematic manner. In addition, there are crucial knowledge gaps that need to be filled for effective policy implementation.
Sabrina Miti Gain is Research Associate at Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC)