I have just had the harrowing experience of visiting the world’s largest refugee camp. Over half a million people – the equivalent of a city the size of Leeds or Sheffield – are crammed into hastily erected bamboo and canvas shelters and tents on a few hillsides and valleys that, in about 50 days, will be hit by the monsoon torrential rains which will wash away the shelters of a quarter of them and turn the whole area (now denuded of all trees) into a muddy morass.
There is a race against time to avoid the worst of this “catastrophe within a catastrophe” by re-locating their makeshift shelters elsewhere. The Bangladesh government even wants to relocate 100,000 to an island off the coast.
And this is just one of several camps – with altogether over a million people – facing the same problem.
The refugees have already faced trauma. Driven out of their homes and villages by the Myanmar (Burma) military, police and even their civilian neighbours in what is described as a textbook case of ethnic cleansing (or even attempted genocide), they have seen family members killed and many have themselves been tortured or raped. We met new arrivals, some with horrific injuries. We met a young boy with 4 letters inked onto his arm: initials of his four friends left behind whom he will probably never see again.
An aid agency employee who previously worked in Yemen (and knows what horror means) told me this is worst she’s ever seen.
There are some 27,000 unaccompanied minors, whose parents were killed or who have otherwise become separated from them. When separated, how to reunite them, even assuming they have family members somewhere in one of the camps? There are no addresses, they have no phones and 70% are illiterate and cannot read descriptions or notes about found children. One way is to post photos of found children around the camps, but how to do it the other way – those searching for a missing child or parent, or at least to have news of what happened to them? One agency has deployed artists to sketch drawings based on descriptions made by the parent (or child), which can then be copied and circulated.
Almost all the world’s Aid Agencies are there, doing fantastic work, each in their specialised fields: medicine, food, shelter, children.
Makeshift medical centres, usually with long queues, can be found across the camps, as can makeshift schools teaching children in shifts. The medical centres are desperately trying to vaccinate everyone against cholera and other communicable diseases, overcoming initial reluctance from people who have never before had (or even heard of) injections and are naturally wary of people sticking needles into their children.
The schools are officially called “children zones” or “learning centres”. Bangladesh will not allow anything that gives the impression that the refugees are settling permanently. They aren’t allowed to teach in Bangla for the same reason, yet teaching in Burmese is not helpful as they usually don’t understand it – their own language is actually a dialect of Bangla (and is in practice used).
Other euphemisms abound: abortions (notably for rape victims) become “menstrual regulation”. The different waves of refugees are known as “new arrivals” (those from 2 years ago) and “fresh arrivals” (those from last year).
Bangladesh – one of the world’s poorest countries- has been admirable in letting the refugees cross the border and welcoming them and proving help. The villages around the south of Cox’s Bazaar have born the brunt. We visited a fishing village where refugees outnumber the locals but they have been welcomed and help on the fishing boats. Aid agencies are aware that help must be given to the host communities too.
But, as with refugees, in Europe, there are some people who resent the influx, or are jealous of some of the aid they’ve received. There are also worries that religious extremists may find recruits among the refugees – with some signs that radical preachers are appearing in the camps to exploit the obvious resentments. Some Bangladesh politicians try to exploit such feelings. There is an election later this year and the government is insistent that the refugees must not leave the camps (they are fenced in) and must return to Myanmar as soon as conditions allow.
But there’s the rub. Will conditions ever allow it? Most refugees would dearly like to return – provided it is safe to do so. But given that their villages and homes have been burned, that Myanmar does not recognise them as nationals (and hasn’t for decades), that the perpetrators of the violence against them are still there and that the government of Myanmar shows no acceptance of its responsibilities, let alone a willingness to allow international observers or security enforcement into the area, it is not surprising that very few want to return. An agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar last November for repatriation of a first voluntary group has remained a dead letter.
So, either international pressure on Myanmar produces results – and it will take a lot more for it to do so, or else the refugees are going to have to be permanently accepted and integrated into Bangladesh (though some may be welcomed elsewhere). A country of 165 million should be able to absorb 1 million linguistically and religiously similar people – after all, Germany is doing so for over a million culturally very different Syrians. But Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries on the planet. A huge effort, not least on housing and education will be needed. It cannot do so without help.
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