Local Muslims are also struggling to survive and growing to resent the ‘favoritism’ shown to persecuted ethnic group
Rohingya children carry firewood for cooking from nearby forests in Balukhali refugee camp, Cox’s Bazar on March 17. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
In the middle of Thangkhali village market, some 30 kilometers from Cox’s Bazar, Akkas Ali is sitting at a tea stall with anxiety and dread written all over his face as he frets about how to feed his family.
The 38-year-old Muslim father of four has long lived in this coastal area in Bangladesh, which has seen an influx of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees from neighboring Myanmar in recent months.
Ali, who is Muslim but not Rohingya, serves as a breadwinner for the family by pooling his income with that of his son. Both men are physical laborers.
About six months ago they were pulling in 800 taka (US$9) a day between them, barely enough to survive but somehow they made it stretch.
That now seems like a lottery win since work dried up and their funds have been exhausted. Ali says they are now lucky to scrape in 300 taka for a backbreaking day’s work.
He says this drastic change in his family’s fortunes is a result of the ongoing Rohingya crisis. That began unfolding last August when legions of refugees started pouring over the Bangladesh-Myanmar border to escape a brutal military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine State
“Journalists and aid groups only come here to find out about the Rohingya but nobody cares about how this crisis has caused us misery and strife,” he told uncanews.com.
“The Rohingya get aid and sympathy but we get nothing, even though we are suffering almost as much as they have.”
The relentless military crackdown in Rakhine State just across the border, which was launched in response to attacks by Rohingya militants on security forces, sparked an exodus of more than 671,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh.
However, before they arrived the district already served as home to 300,000 registered and unregistered refugees.
Most had fled bouts of violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where they are still branded as “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh, denied citizenship status and basic human rights, and routinely persecuted by the military and hard-line local Buddhists.
A view of the Balukhali refugee camp, which hosts about 200,000 Rohingya Muslims, in Cox’s Bazar on March 17. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
As brutal killings, rape, arson and looting forced the Rohingya to flee their homes, many Bangladeshis welcomed their Muslim brethren with warmth and sympathy, offering them whatever they could by way of assistance.
They did this despite the fact that Bangladesh is an overpopulated and impoverished country of 160 million.
But now, as the repatriation plan signed by the two countries has been delayed, and amid soaring prices of daily essentials, as well as a loss of forest land and a decline in jobs and income in Cox’s Bazar, more locals are getting fed up with the Rohingya’s presence.
“The Rohingya get aid and work as day laborers for 100-150 taka (US$1-2). We’ve shown them sympathy but now we’re in trouble and it is us, too, who are standing in line to receive relief materials,” said a disgruntled Ali.
There are about a dozen formal and informal refugee camps dotted along the Cox’s Bazar-Teknaf highway.
Along one 38-kilometer stretch from Ukhiya to Leda, where most of the settlements are located, huge numbers of construction works can be seen.
Shanty towns have sprung up and buildings with roofs made of brick or corrugated iron are gobbling up agricultural fields and forests in the area as the government struggles to accommodate not only the refugees but also a rising number of government officials, aid agencies and traders.
“The forests have been cleared, the wildlife is disappearing and the agricultural fields have been overrun by brick buildings,” Farid Ahmed, the headmaster of a local primary school, told ucanews.com.
“Few people are benefiting from these changes, but most local people are suffering. The humanitarian efforts to help the Rohingya are becoming an eyesore for the people of Cox’s Bazar,” he said.
Gafor Uddin Chowdhury, chairman of the Palongkhali Union Council, a local government body, said the Rohingya crisis is slowly shattering the lives of local people.
Pictured is the road leading to the same camp. The verdant agricultural fields surrounding the camp have largely become barren since the refugees starting flooding in last summer. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
“Cox’s Bazar used to sell large volumes of betel leaves and water melon, but now traders are buying them from elsewhere as demand has increased here, driving up prices,” Chowdhury told ucanews.com.
“Agricultural land is disappearing so we have fewer crops or vegetable supplies. Cattle-grazing land is also being reduced,” he said.
“The refugees have crashed the local labor market and many people have lost their sources of income,” he added.
“Whether they go back to Myanmar or not, Cox’s Bazar will never be the same again.”
In the wake of the mass exodus from Myanmar, Dhaka acquired 1,214 hectares of mostly forestland to build refugee camps in the area.
A report published in December by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) warns that the Rohingya camps pose no fewer than 28 threats to forests, land, water, biodiversity and people’s health in Cox’s Bazar.
It warned that the destruction of forests and hills would cause huge damage to wildlife, especially to the natural habitats of elephants and rare species of birds only found in the district’s two national parks.
The report added that a number of animals and plants would likely become extinct if the government keeps on building more settlements.
Dr. Abdul Mannan Chowdhury, who lectures at the Faculty of Economics at Chittagong University, said concern is growing about the impact the refugee crisis is having on local people, the economy, and the environment.
“People can see that their cost of living is rising, their income is falling, the forests are being cleared, agricultural fields are gone, and the overall environment in Cox’s Bazar is in peril,” Chowdhury told ucanews.com.
“Their concerns are well founded as they face misery on a daily basis. Moreover, they are losing faith the refugees will ever return home,” he added.
“The people here don’t hate the refugees, but these socio-economic problems are fueling discontentment. If the situation stays like this, things could spiral out of control,” he said ominously.
William Pintu Gomes, head of the Disaster Management Department at Catholic charity Caritas, said the agency recently conducted a survey of “host communities” and the feedback about the Rohingya was mostly negative.
“People are increasingly frustrated as they face multi-pronged social, economic and environmental pressure due to the crisis,” he said.
“In some cases, the conditions have become worse for local people than for the refugees,” Gomes told ucanews.com.
“Their income levels have fallen but the cost of living has spiked, so they are unable to cope.”
Gomes pointed out that, like the refugees, local people also need assistance from the government and aid groups.
“Supporting the host community is a basic element of humanitarian work and we are trying bring this issue to the fore to tackle an impending crisis,” he said.
“Donors are not ready to support the locals yet, but they need to realize this is a serious issue they can’t ignore.”