Eating, sleeping, and scavenging for resources by ensuring a spot for themselves in the queue for rations -- this has been the life of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees in the Kutupalong camp, at least it was for the first couple of months after their arrival in Bangladesh from Myanmar.
Quickly though, things changed. While I visited Kutupalong in late December, I could clearly apprehend a micro-scale but full-fledged economy within the camp. Impetuous to earn cash and to avail other rudimentary needs, the camp-dwellers have innovated their own strategies -- a microeconomics of survival.
Using the limited capital, physical strength, and local connections, many of them have found their ways to earn cash that allows them the “luxury” to change the menu of a meal, to buy cheap candy for their kids, or to buy warm clothes for the approaching winter.
Each of them is provided with an ID card that brands them as Rohingya, a card that also serves the dual purpose of restricting their movements and excluding them from the formal workforce. The bi-weekly ration supplied by the WFP and other NGOs include 25kgs of rice, 4.5kgs of lentils, 2 litres of cooking oil, and some dry food for a family of up to eight members.
They also get fuel to cook, kitchen utensils, biscuits, and so forth in aid, but these are neither regular nor guaranteed.
Having to flee for their lives, hiding in the forests and hills and walk all the way from their villages to Bangladesh, hardly anyone could bring any possession or resources with them. A lack of cash is, thus, one of the biggest, if not the biggest, concern for them.
The significant players of this survival microeconomics are either those who came to Bangladesh earlier (for example, in 2012) and have managed to develop a connection with the local community, or those who have been able to bring in some cash with them.
They are mostly the owners of the small shops that now dot the camp, selling daily necessities ranging from shoes to clothes, veggies to beef, flashlights to wrist watches. On the other end are those who have found their ways to buy from these stores. How are they doing this? There are four primary ways.
Demand and supply
First, those who came and settled in the camp and the adjacent areas earlier, developed local connections. They also speak the local language better than most of the newcomers. Using these links, they buy goods at a wholesale price from the native market and sell in the camp. The other group joining this category are those who were well-to-do in Myanmar and managed to bring in cash with them.
They either set up shop themselves or use their capital to make someone else set up a store for them. As I was walking and wandering about these shops, my local guide told me: “They are mostly the old Rohingya, but a few of them are newcomers with money in their hands.”
There must be buyers for these goods, and there are. They are the second source of significant cash flow. However, their capital is mainly their physical strength, courage, and nature itself.
‘I got five blankets and five mattresses. What am I going to do with five mattresses? My hut has only two rooms. I sold three of them in the local market.’ Visibly, the local market is flooded with UNHCR or WFP branded relief goods
The Kutupalong camp is set up in one of the densely forested hilly areas of Bangladesh. There is still a shiny sign along the road passing through the camp declaring “route for wild elephants.”
One of the regular activities of the Rohingya men, women, and children are to wander in the forest, cut down trees, and bring them to sell.
Ziaul (not real name), a 27-year-old selling fuel wood, tells me: “They [camp-dwellers] cut down the trees and bring to me in bundles. I buy it from them and sell it. A small bundle costs Tk50, and a large one costs Tk80.”
This claims substantial environmental costs that are already blatantly apparent. An area known for its wilderness, where wild elephants used to roam even six months ago, has turned naked reddish, reflecting the colour of its earth. An awaiting cyclone season and fewer tree roots slackening the tillas
(small hills) skyrocket the probability of a massive landslide in the camp, likely to claim thousands of lives and many more casualties.
The third source of cash is the ration itself. They sell their extra quota in the local market at a lower price and buy other necessities with that. Mohammed Habib (not real name) puts it: “I have a family of five, I do not need all the lentils I get. So, I sell them and use that money to buy some fish or beef.”
Another resident Farook (pseudonym) tells me: “I got five blankets and five mattresses. What am I going to do with five mattresses? My hut has only two rooms. I sold three of them in the local market.”
Visibly, the local market is flooded with UNHCR or WFP-branded relief goods.
Finally, the native people bring in vegetables, fish, meat, and other fresh food (mostly of sub-par standards) on a daily basis to sell to the Rohingya -- the same people who manage to earn cash either by selling fuel wood or the ration.
No matter how much aid is provided, the Rohingya cannot be kept in restriction, doing nothing but eating and defecating. They have already initiated their microeconomics of survival. While, on the one hand, this allows them to enjoy a little “luxury,” on the other hand, it has ostensibly posed a threat to their lives.
Only time will tell if their desperate survival instinct has carried a seed of destruction all the way through with it.
Md Azmeary Ferdoush is a PhD candidate in Geography at the University of Hawaii and a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh.