Life in refugee camps is far different from most of our daily experiences. Since August 2017, large-scale ethnic violence in northwest Myanmar—which the United Nations has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”—has resulted in a sudden forced migration of more than a million Rohingyas to neighboring Bangladesh.
When I traveled to southeastern Bangladesh, where Rohingyas took shelter, I experienced a glimpse of the crisis firsthand. In summer 2018 I spent most of my time in the Rohingya refugee camp in the region known as Kutupalong, where I documented living conditions. By that time, it had become the world’s largest refugee camp.
Familiar with Bangladesh’s infamous monsoon and floods, I was particularly concerned about the disaster vulnerability of the refugee camp. Previously the area was designated as reserve forest. Bangladesh is already a poor and highly dense country. Understanding the magnitude of the crisis, the government had little choice but to allow the temporary refugee shelters in the forest reserve. The Bangladeshi government and humanitarian agencies now work around the clock to provide the Rohingyas with food, shelter, and health services. However, due to steep terrain and the massive scale of the camp, people have had to build their shelters on the hillsides, which are highly vulnerable to heavy rains, mudslides, and flooding.
When I arrived in July 2018, the local paddy fields were entirely submerged, resembling a river.
The Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp is simply enormous—the world’s largest refugee camp. Though many Rohingyas could escape ethnic violence by fleeing to Bangladesh, they are trapped in a location highly susceptible to natural hazards: heavy monsoon, flash floods, and landslides.
In Kutupalong camp, Rohingyas live with minimal or no access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and drainage and sewage systems, exposing refugees to significant health hazards.
Because of the monsoon, living in the camp is more challenging for women, children, and elderly people. During my trip there, I found the roads were very slippery. Because of the nature of heavy population concentration and inadequate accessibility, it is often challenging to reach people who need assistance.
I witnessed landslides in the camp area because of the heavy rainfall. Rohingyas were engaged by different humanitarian agencies in the camp areas for reconstruction projects.
Since heavy rainfall, landslides, and flash floods are the major disaster risks, humanitarian agencies are trying to develop critical infrastructure. In addition to constructing temporary shelters, agencies are partnering to build roads and water supply, sanitation, and drainage systems.
Basic accessibility is critical not only for Rohingyas themselves, but also for humanitarian agencies. Using maintained roads, humanitarian agencies can send support and supplies.
Despite the chaotic nature of the camp, there are some coordinated efforts among agencies to build shelters that are less vulnerable to landslides and flooding. Sandbags and vegetable gardening are consciously being used to protect shelters.
Despite atrocities and suffering, Rohingyas attempt to move forward in their lives as residents in the refugee camps of Bangladesh. For example, many are working to mobilize their financial resources through micro and small enterprises. I found many of the men work either with humanitarian agencies or try to build their own small businesses.
Artwork such as murals can be found throughout the camp. Despite the challenging living conditions, paintings and other art demonstrate the cultural and creative nature of the Rohingyas.
Children’s drawings capture the devastation and atrocities against Rohingyas in Myanmar. In various child-friendly spaces (CFS), funded by UNCEF and other agencies, Rohingya children receive social, psychological, and educational support. This drawing is from a CFS in Balukhali Camp, near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.
The Rohingya lost everything. Yet children at CFS in different refugee camps are provided the time and space to create a new village—even if only on paper—where there are trees, rice fields, rivers, boats, sunshine, and safe and permanent homes.
View Saleh Ahmed’s A Life of Science feature, “The Human Story of Transformation in Coastal Bangladesh.”
Header and all photos by Saleh Ahmed.