The blame lies solely on Myanmar
In the space of a few weeks starting August 2017, the Myanmar military drove out hundreds of thousands of Rohingya into neighbouring Bangladesh and killed thousands in the process. In addition to the humanitarian cost of the crisis, the environment has been a major casualty too. Bangladesh not only had to respond to the 800,000 new arrivals with resources and infrastructure that were insufficient, but also the subsequent toll on the environment.
In total, about a million Rohingya refugees are located in the Ukhiya and Teknaf regions in south-eastern Bangladesh. This has had a massive environmental impact, including deforestation of protected areas, loss of habitat for wildlife, erosion, and loss of productive land to make way for makeshift housing. The refugees themselves were severely affected by these changes and they continue to lack basic environmental protections.
It is reasonable to argue that neither Bangladesh nor the refugees are responsible for the severe impact on the environment. The blame lies with the state responsible for the deportation of the Rohingya and the creation of the refugee crisis -- the state of Myanmar.
Yet the environment has become a flashpoint between the host population and the refugees. Myanmar is somehow not in the picture.
Bangladesh authorities have consistently highlighted the destruction of the environment to project to the world community the burden of carrying the refugee population.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself said: “They have become a huge burden for Bangladesh. The environment and forest resources in Cox’s Bazar are getting destroyed.”
Bangladeshi politicians have also explicitly cited environmental concerns as a reason for moving the Rohingya to the remote island of Bhashan Char.
The INGOs have a similar analysis. A 2018 International Organisation of Migration (IOM) report stated: “While Bangladesh’s vulnerability to climate change has long been known, the recent influx of Rohingya refugees may intensify the problem.”
The outcome of this single-focus blame narrative is that it inexplicably leaves the real culprit out of the equation -- Myanmar.
For four decades, Rohingya refugees have been restricted to certain areas of Ukhiya and Teknaf. A considerable portion of this area consists of hilly terrains and is at risk of landslides and flash floods. Refugee homes are constructed with PVC and wood. It is estimated that 400 acres to 600 acres of local reserve forest area were used up in the construction of refugee shacks.
The daily consumption of thousands of tons of firewood for cooking also contributed to the deforestation. LPG gas has only recently been supplied to the refugees. Additionally, there was ground water depletion (because of extraction by the refugees) and contamination (leakage of latrines).
In the summer of 2020, some 20,000 households required relocation or the rebuilding of their shelters because of exposure to heavy flooding, landslides, high winds, or soil erosion. Similar difficulties were observed in the summer of 2021. The densely-packed shacks also constitute a massive fire risk, and in March of 2021, a devastating fire ripped through Kutupalong camp, rendering more than 50,000 people homeless.
The ongoing international justice processes concerning the Rohingya crisis are not dealing with the environment. The International Criminal Court (ICC) authorized the opening of an investigation into crimes of acts against humanity of deportation across the Myanmar-Bangladesh border and persecution on grounds of ethnicity and/or religion against the Rohingya population.
A case has also been brought before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) by Gambia. As the case continues, Myanmar has been ordered by the ICJ, in the interim, to prevent genocidal acts and to specifically ensure military and police forces do not commit genocidal acts.
The ICJ and the ICC did not include environmental damage in their consideration, either in Myanmar during the violence, or in Bangladesh after the Rohingya were forcibly deported from Myanmar.
Environmental justice for Bangladesh as an “injured state” and for Rohingya whose rights have been violated in their totality, including their environmental capacities and protection, is entirely missing from considerations of liability, prevention, and redress.
One state creating environmental damage for another through mass forced deportation of hundreds of thousands of people should fall within ICJ jurisdiction. The Court can only deal with what a state puts before it and therefore it is incumbent on Bangladesh to register this claim against Myanmar.
With reference to the ICC, there is currently no crime which relates to harming the environment per se. Nevertheless, it is possible to construct arguments that environmental damage constitutes a crime against humanity by harming people. Within Myanmar’s borders, it is the state’s responsibility to provide a safe and stable environment for its people and not to deprive them of these.
In this context, blaming Rohingya refugees for damaging the environment is entirely misguided. This fails to hold Myanmar liable and it fails to develop any mechanisms of redress for Bangladesh or the refugees themselves.
Given the current awareness about the responsibilities of states regarding the environment, the situation demands not only the development of better mitigation strategies at the district level, but also the exploration of international environmental law to seek to hold Myanmar responsible, seek redress for the receiving state, and ultimately, to support the human rights of the Rohingya population in Myanmar and those who have been driven to Bangladesh.
Shafiur Rahman is a journalist and documentary film-maker.