Poor, overpopulated Bangladesh can’t handle flood of Rohingya refugees
Mandakini Gahlot, Special for USA TODAY Published 6:30 a.m. ET Oct. 6, 2017
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COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh — This resort town has one of the longest beaches in the world and is one of the biggest tourist attractions in this desperately poor country. Yet even this vital source of revenue is at risk.
Foreign and domestic vacationers are avoiding the area because more than 500,000 refugees fleeing persecution in neighboring Myanmar have set up temporary camp here. “It was all just beautiful beaches and long stretches of gorgeous forests with wild elephants,” recalled local native Abdullah Nayan, 31, a videographer.
Today, “there’s an uptick in the kind of crimes that this area was unfamiliar with before — theft, violent attacks, even murders,” Nayan said. The problem is blamed on Rohingya refugees who have faced attacks by the Myanmar military. The Rohingya, a Muslim minority, are denied citizenship in Myanmar, a mostly Buddhist country formerly known as Burma.The United Nations has accused Myanmar soldiers of ethnic cleansing in the northwest state of Rakhine, burning Rohingya villages and killing those who can’t escape. Myanmar’s government said it was retaliating for unprovoked attacks on soldiers by Rohingya separatists.
The Bangladesh district of Ukhia, where many fleeing Rohingya have settled, had a population of only 200,000 in 2015. Now there are more than two refugees for every native resident. “The locals have become a minority overnight. Of course they are scared,” said Mohammad Jahedul Chowdhury, a project coordinator with the Community Development Center, a government organization that help the Rohingya get aid. “As much as they want to help the Rohingya — and many of them are — they also worry about how this will transform their city and their society.”
The newcomers have already changed the region by cutting down trees for fuel and building makeshift shelters on the gentle slopes of the hills along the Bay of Bengal. Most live in tent cities where conditions are squalid.
“There’s also a sharp rise in prices of food as unscrupulous traders try to cash in on the Rohingya crisis. Let’s not forget that the natural beauty of this area is completely destroyed,” Nayan added.
At the Kutapalang camp, around 350 refugees are staying in a school that has only two toilets. The World Health Organization has warned of cholera outbreaks. “My 7-year-old grandson has diarrhea,” said Farida Khatum, 68. “The doctor said he needs to be careful about hygiene, but how can we do that? He doesn’t even have a toilet to use. All the children just go behind the huts.”
Cox’s Bazar normally attracts nearly 2 million tourists between October and April. Today, the city’s resorts are filled with aid workers, government officials and others. “During the tourist season, I can earn as much $50 to $75 in a day, but if the tourists stop coming, I will have to do something else, maybe become a fisherman like my father,” said Jahangir Alam, who earns a living as a driver.
Bangladesh, already overpopulated at 160 million people, is one of the world’s poorest countries. But last year, the economy clocked growth of more than 7%, the fastest expansion in more than 30 years. It was the sixth consecutive year of economic growth of more than 6%.
“Hosting a huge number of Myanmar nationals is a big burden for Bangladesh,” said Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, adding that the refugees eventually have to go elsewhere. “We’ve given shelter to them only on a humanitarian basis.”
Bangladesh has long viewed Rohingya refugees as an internal security threat, and in the past proposed moving them to a remote, uninhabited island prone to hurricanes and cyclones, a proposal still on the table. For the moment, the government announced it is building a massive refugee city over 2,000 acres in Cox’s Bazar.
The country has also imposed severe restrictions on the refugees, including forbidding them from traveling freely in Bangladesh. “If they are kept from mingling with the rest of the population, it is good because then maybe the government can send them back to Myanmar someday or to any other country that will help,” Choudhury said.
Many refugees resent the restrictions but said they were still thankful to be in Bangladesh. “At least we are not being attacked here, so we can get on with the business of living,” said Nobi Hasan, 62, who fled Myanmar on Sept. 22 with his daughter-in-law, two grandsons and a granddaughter who was born on the border as they were traveling.
“I have some relatives who came to Bangladesh in the 1980s, and my nephew studies in a university in Dhaka,” he added. “But I cannot go to see them because we are not allowed to leave from the camp area. I hope the international community will appeal to Bangladesh to let us see our relatives.”