In 1991, I met the first Rohingya families who had fled Myanmar in what would become an exodus of hundreds of thousands to Bangladesh.
They sought shelter near Cox’s Bazar where I photographed them and wrote the first published news story about the 90s refugees.
Even with forced repatriation, tens of thousands of the 90s refugees and their descendants remained in Bangladesh. They were, according to the UNHCR, joined by 168,000 between 2012 and May 2017. As the world knows, 655,000 more have come to Bangladesh since August 2017, when decades of persecution by Myanmar’s military culminated in a scorched earth rampage of arson, rape, and massacre.
The people of Bangladesh have been extraordinarily generous to the new arrivals and international organizations provide life-saving services. But it is time to think beyond the catastrophe response of basic survival aid.
The necessary basic conditions for large-scale voluntary return to Myanmar such as safety and citizenship are unlikely to occur in the near future.
Continuing in makeshift emergency mode will not help Rohingya refugees or the surrounding communities such as Cox’s Bazar (previously known mainly for its beautiful beach).
The Kutupalong refugee camp alone now has an estimated 550,000 inhabitants. It is actually more of a city, but a flimsy and hastily built one. Damage to Social Forestry Program land has been severe and the need for firewood causes further environmental devastation.
UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar human rights Yanghee Lee warned, during a recent visit, that the rainy season will bring landslides, potentially with “a huge number of casualties.”
The number of Rohingya refugees who have reached Bangladesh since August 2017 is larger than the population of Portland, Oregon, the city where I live.
Portland is known for its forward-thinking urban planning. An urban growth boundary protects our surrounding countryside. Farmland is just a bicycle ride away. Forests preserve the watershed and fisheries.
Alternative energy, including wind and solar power, is encouraged in the state. “Build up, not out” is the mandate for new housing, favouring density instead of urban sprawl.
At present, Kutupalong is densely populated, but in an unhealthy and hazardous way, with tarp-roofed shacks perched on every spot of land, including muddy hillsides.
These precarious temporary dwellings should be replaced with durable multi-family buildings, some of them two or more stories high, clustered in village-like units with shared gardens, forming a new green city.
Construction material can include recycled shipping containers.
At present, Kutupalong is densely populated, but in an unhealthy and hazardous way. These precarious temporary dwellings should be replaced with durable multi-family buildings, forming a new green city
Solar power and clean water systems should be installed and kitchens should use lower-impact fuel. Deforested hillsides can be replanted with bamboo and fruit trees.
Schools, literacy, and livelihood programs can operate in cooperation with nearby Bangladeshi communities. Establishing normalized stability will improve security and reduce the possibility of criminal exploitation or extremist recruitment.
The construction of this new green city would boost the Cox’s Bazar economy and provide employment for Bangladeshis as well as Rohingya.
It would enhance Cox’s Bazar as a commercial and educational centre and would be a model for other green building projects and disaster response in Bangladesh.
When the Rohingya are eventually able to return across the Naf River to their homeland as Myanmar’s citizens, this green city could continue as a place for Bangladeshis to live and learn.
The Rohingya are extraordinarily resilient people, rising above their collective trauma.
They are hard-working and they long for their children to be educated.
These are refugees who, in many cases, when they fled for their lives, carried solar panels as their most valuable possession.
They are very capable of building and maintaining a green city.
I hope that urban planning leaders of Bangladesh and international aid donors will move forward from the present humanitarian crisis and work with Rohingya refugees to create a livable, sustainable community.
Edith Mirante is director of Project Maje www.projectmaje.org an information project on Myanmar’s human rights and environmental issues which she founded in 1986 and author of two books on Myanmar.