One day with the Rohingya refugees: A home where people can feel safer

Laurie Lee
View of Kutupalong refugee camp

I have just spent one day in the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. 

There are now almost one million Rohingya refugees living here, having fled across the border from Myanmar.

Most of the world’s refugees don’t go far. Partly they want to stay close to home in a culture similar to their own, hoping they can return soon. But the Rohingya people fled from unimaginable violence and persecution. There’s no current sign that they feel safe to return to Myanmar. We agree with the Bangladeshi Government’s clear commitment only to facilitate refugees voluntarily returning back to Myanmar when they feel the conditions are safe.

Most refugees also aren’t able to go far. They don’t have the money or papers. Most of the Rohingya people walked for days and crossed dangerous rivers to get to Bangladesh. Most of their houses and belongings had already been razed to the ground. But they couldn’t have carried many valuables anyway. They were often carrying small children or older family members.

They stopped in pretty much the first safe place they got to: an area called Kutupalong, a few miles south of the Bangladesh seaside resort of Cox’s Bazar.

A view of rooftops at the refugee camp
A view of rooftops at the refugee camp

What does it look like?

The journey from the main city of Cox’s Bazar south to the refugee camps is a beautiful one. On one side is the endless sandy beach that attracts millions of tourists to Cox’s Bazar . On the other side of the road are lush green slopes. As we turn off the road and drive inland, our local CARE colleague explains that this is what the camp area used to look like, before all the trees were cut down to make room for the refugees. It’s what humans have done everywhere, throughout history. Here, the Rohingya refugees had no choice – and in fact they are taking up very little space.

One million people are squeezed into an area of 15 square miles. This is like squeezing the whole population of Birmingham (UK) into less than 10% of the space.

Sign showing map of Camp 13 at Bangladesh refugee camp
A sign with a rough map of Camp 13

Refugees welcome

The area is home to about 335,000 Bangladeshi people as well, many of whom are also poor and from minority ethnic groups. So the refugees outnumber the ‘host community’ by three to one. And yet, the refugees have been welcomed. This should put Europe to shame for the way we have refused to accept our responsibilities for Syrian and other refugees under the UN Refugee Convention, signed in 1951 to protect Europeans from ever going through again what we went through in the second world war.

Of course there are tensions. As there are in all communities. Over space, over the use of natural resources, over who gets help from government or others. But the communities manage to get along. They have found ways to work together through trading labour and goods. As we see in every crisis around the world, an economy persists out of necessity, and refugees and their hosts contribute to a mutually beneficial economy.

View of marketplace at Rohingya refugee camp
A market in the refugee camp

This is also why CARE and others make sure we support the local community too. Many of them are also poor, and disadvantaged. They also face similar risks and challenges to the Rohingya refugees, including cyclones. And so half of CARE’s response work is also with and for the local community, not just with the refugees.

Fragile terrain and extreme weather

When we arrived at the camps it was hot, dusty and sandy. And it’s hilly. There are still a few trees left, but the sandy hills have become much less stable with the removal of most trees, and prone to landslides. So a very important part of CARE’s site management work – we manage camps 13 and 16, with nearly 70,000 people living there – is to deal with rain.

Scene from the camp where a roadway is being prepared
Scene from the camp where a roadway is being prepared

There are brick-paved roads, made with local bricks and laid by refugees and host community members who have been trained and are paid for their work. This ensures access for vehicles on key routes even in the rain, which might include ambulances or vital deliveries like medicine. Our team cleverly combines stairways, to help people access their homes, with gullies for the rain to run off. These also help to shore up the hillsides. In other places, banks of sandbags and newly-planted trees do the same job.

Flooded field used as a football pitch
The floodplain after a short downpour

While we were there, it rained heavily for about 15 minutes. In no time, water is pouring down the gutters and gullies. The sandy football pitch where we saw children playing a few minutes ago starts doing its main job as a flood plain. It doesn’t stop the kids playing on it – which could be very dangerous in worse weather, or if the water is contaminated with toilet waste. Providing latrines and emptying them responsibly has been an urgent priority in the last two years.

The water goes where it is meant to. But the team still expected to do an assessment after that short rainfall, to check for damage to shelters or infrastructure. After any serious rainfall, they expect some of the temporary shelters to be damaged and need repair. With global warming increasing cyclones and flooding in Bangladesh, the Rohingya people’s already precarious existence remains under constant threat.

What is home?

Most people live in the original temporary shelters that they built quickly when people starting arriving here in 2017/18. The temporary materials were the only kind allowed by the government of Bangladesh.

Each family of five lives in a shelter which is usually 4.9m x 3.7m. That is only twice the size of a British prison cell for one person. The shelters are small, which means cooking fires are never far from flammable belongings. There’s little room for women and men, young and old, to have privacy. Toilets and washing areas are shared between whole streets.

Woman using a water tap at the refugee camp
A woman collecting water from a tap stand set up by CARE

The shelters are bamboo frames, covered in plastic tarpaulin. This gives no sound privacy. It makes them very hot. It also makes them very fragile if there is heavy rain, let alone a landslide or a cyclone. And the bamboo, if it is just staked into the soil, eventually rots. They are not meant to last. They are meant to be temporary shelters, but the Rohingya have been here for two years with no end in sight.

On average, around the world, refugees will live in ‘temporary’ accommodation for 17 years.

So this does not make sense. It’s dangerous. It’s wasteful, because these temporary shelters just can’t last. Over 17 years they might have to be replaced 10 times and repaired much more often. It would be a better use of aid to move people into stronger and more stable housing as soon as possible.

A shelter damaged by strong winds
A shelter damaged by strong winds

People need safer shelters

CARE and others have been advocating for changes to the rules to allow us to build safer and better shelters for the Rohingya people. Following government-approved guidance, CARE is providing transitional shelter assistance. We work with families to identify a shelter design and materials required that respond to their family’s specific needs. This might include additional partitions or front doors to maintain privacy. People are provided with training and materials to construct their own shelters, with extremely vulnerable people supported with labour.

A row of new shelters at the refugee camp
A row of new shelters provided by CARE

The structures are better-ventilated with tarpaulin used for the roof but bamboo strips for the walls. The bamboo frame is set in metal footings to prevent rot. Ahead of the monsoon and cyclone season, families are shown how to tie down their roofs, with guy ropes buried underground, to better resist high winds. In cases where families are relocated away from places at risk of landslide, CARE works with them to understand the need and to make provision to ensure they continue to feel safe, particularly the most vulnerable households such as single parents.

We have funding to replace over 2,000 shelters with these improved shelters. But that is less than one in 10 of the shelters in the camps that we manage. One of the main challenges for all of the aid agencies working for the Rohingya refugees is that funding is going down, but the need isn’t. Once an emergency is out of the news, funding starts to decline. We need the big government donors to do a better job of sustaining the funding for the longer term.

It would also be better to spend more aid in preventing disasters, which is also cheaper than responding to them. But that just doesn’t hit the headlines.

Signboard showing cyclone early warning system
Signboard showing the early warning system for cyclones

Everyday risks and emergencies

There are a lot of risks for the people living in the camp. Rain causes landslides. Strong winds can rip off roofs. Fire is both likely because of the small homes, and will spread quickly because the shelters – made of bamboo and other flammable materials – are so close together. With open defecation common, water-borne disease remains a real concern, particularly affecting the most vulnerable such as the elderly, pregnant women and small children. Not to mention other accidents, illness and crime.

At night, there are no aid workers allowed to remain in the camps. We are training community groups of women and men, both in the Rohingya camps and in the local community, about what to do in an emergency.

In the host community, we are training people on how to know that a cyclone is coming and to prepare for evacuation. There are several new cyclone shelters being built in the area.

Back in the refugee camp, I met one of the groups of women and men in Block D of Camp 13. They told me the fire drill, over the din of the rain pounding on the thin roof (but we stayed dry…):

1. Evacuate the shelter and nearby shelters. This might mean encouraging someone to leave behind their only possession in the world.

2. Fight the fire with the extinguishers, water and sand provided at fire points.

3. If necessary, tear down the shelters next door to the one on fire!

Just imagine what that would be like. Imagine the conversations neighbours have to have with each other in advance, to agree that this is what everyone would do if there was a fire, to save as many homes as possible. And many of the Rohingya had their homes deliberately burned down in Myanmar only two years ago.

As always in an emergency in poorer countries, the first responders are always actually the affected people themselves.

They doubly deserve our support, as soon as we can get it to them.

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Laurie Lee's picture

Laurie Lee is Chief Executive of CARE International UK – Read his blog posts on our Insights policy and practice website