In the final week of August 2017 the pristine Ukhia–Teknaf region of the southeast tip of Bangladesh, adjoining the Arakan state of Burma, had a rude awakening. The locals experienced an influx of refugees. Within weeks, parts of the long stretch of the Cox's Bazar–Teknaf road were bursting at the seams with the incoming Rohingya refugees, mostly women and children. They were pouring in “like the gush of a broken dam”, as one resident of Gundhum put it. Most of the uninvited guests were wandering around the area under the scorching summer sun or drenched in the pouring monsoon rain without any cover, not knowing what to do next—where to go, where to find water and food for their thirsty and starving children, a shed for a mother who just gave birth, and medical attention for an elderly who desperately needed it.
The residents of Teknaf–Ukhia were faced with this unforeseen development at a time the state authorities based in Dhaka officially declared the Rohingyas as “infiltrators” and ordered the border guards to deport any “illegal Myanmar nationals”. Reportedly, as a senior official of the security force was reiterating the directive to his subordinates, he was interrupted by the blare of helicopter gunships firing on Rohingyas just across the border.
Faced with the enormity of the refugee inflow and the burgeoning public opinion in favour of providing them asylum, both at home and abroad, the state authorities in Bangladesh had to come to terms with the futility of non-admission and push-back initiatives. They had little choice but to alter their course in dealing with the crisis. By then, tens of thousands of Rohingyas had fallen victim to unscrupulous fixers and boatmen, who extorted vast sums of money and other assets from the fleeing refugees to facilitate border crossing and find them safe passage. Press reports at the time inform that there was a 6,000 percent hike in river crossing tolls; refugees were paid 1/16th of the official rate of exchange rate while converting money and forced to sell gold at 1/8th of the prevailing market rate; and the fees to smuggle them to other parts of the country varied between USD 1,200 to USD 6,200.
By the time the state authorities acknowledged the reality and decided to admit the Rohingyas, the Eid holidays set in, nearly paralysing the civil administration for days. Despite the best of intentions, it took several days, if not weeks, to shore up the official relief effort. In the mean time it was the ordinary folks of Ukhia and Teknaf, of all creeds and classes, who shared their own meals; provided shelter in their homes, yards and land; allowed them to use their kitchens and toilets; helped them in nourishing their starving children and caring for the elderly; and patiently listened to the harrowing tales of losing loved ones that eased the pain of their uninvited guests.
In their effort to help the refugees, the locals were joined by hordes of fellow Bangladeshis, young and old, coming from even far-flung districts of Kurigram, Satkhira and Sylhet, and mobilising resources of various types and volumes from their own families, schools, mosques and communities to ameliorate the sufferings of the refugees. Very soon they were joined by specialised agencies such as Ganoshastho Kendra, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Action Against hunger (ACF), Ad-Din, and Zakat Foundations and BRAC.
In order to provide space for building shelters to other incoming refugees, many local households endured severe losses as matured trees were felled in the land that were taken as lease from the government. Fields full of crop were damaged by spontaneous human movement. Fishing folks searching for fish fries were suddenly faced with a huge number of new competitors. With the sharp increase of new entrants in the local market desperately looking for work, the wage of local workers, including those in the construction, deep sea fishing, and vehicle plying sectors, registered a drop. People of all walks of life were faced with a steep rise of price of essentials, with BDT 80 being the lowest price of any vegetable, at least double the price in pre-August 25. Fares of all transportation, including rickshaws, registered an increase by 100 to 200 percent. The arrival of consultants, aid workers, and relief activities has shored up the rental cost of vans and heavy vehicles, as well as that of flats and houses, by many times. Thus, while the people of Bangladesh in other regions empathise with the hapless Rohingyas, and among them the compassionate and active try their best to raise funds for Rohingya relief, it is the people of Ukhia and Teknaf who are bearing the brunt of the refugee flow.
Ukhia–Teknaf is one of the most economically depressed regions of the country. Roughly, these two unions cover an area of 651 square kilometres and is home to about 500,000 inhabitants. Post-August 25, this region now hosts an almost equal number of refugees. This is not the first time the area is hosting refugees. In 1978 and 1991–92, it hosted 280,000 and 250,000 Rohingyas respectively. Prior to the recent influx in post-August, it hosted around 300,000 of what the government preferred to term as “undocumented Myanmar nationals” (UMN).
News reports inform that a mega-camp fitting 800,000 has been planned around the vicinity in the existing Kutupalong camp. The government plans to bring all Rohingyas including the UMNs in the planned camp and has allocated 2000 acres of land. Construction of 150,000 sheds has been planned; of this, more than 75,000 sheds have so far been constructed to accommodate Rohingya refugees. The entire camp will be divided into 20 blocks with each block having an administrative unit to facilitate all kinds of services. The construction of a nine-kilometre-long electricity line is underway. Sources inform that a road will be built by the army to connect the facility with the main road.
There is palpable disgruntlement in the local community about the way the refugee situation is being addressed. Local leaders, elected functionaries, civil society activists, and intelligentsia appear to be in unison that authorities in Dhaka have not provided them with any meaningful space and opportunity to voice their concerns and offer their suggestions to what may turn out to be a protracted refugee situation. The holding of a long session on October 4 of a minister, local MP, secretary, DG NGO Affairs Bureau and district high officials with local leaders and activists is no substitute to a sustained engagement for formulating a well-thought-out strategy for a crisis that has captured the world's attention and will have an immense impact on the lives and livelihood of half a million people of Ukhia and Teknaf.
There is a near consensus of the local people on several matters.
Firstly, they are at a loss as to why what for decades they understood to be a refugee problem was being labelled as a problem of “infiltrators” initially, and now as “destitute Myanmar nationals”. In this regard, the representative of a local development organisation views that such a shift in labelling will undermine the role of the Rohingya Refugee Repatriation Commissioner, the line agency under the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, with whose office they had developed working modalities on refugees for decades. Some felt putting another agency not guided by the UN normative framework as the lead international counterpart actor instead of UNHCR would be an exercise in re-inventing the wheel. “This may result in immense sufferings to the refugees”, an activist with years of experience on refugee management on the ground observes.
Secondly, locals are apprehensive about the feasibility of the proposed a mega-camp. They pondered why the simple logic of rendering services to separate camps of 20,000 residents each would be more inefficient than rendering services to a single camp of 800,000. They felt that the concentration of such a massive number of traumatised people in a confined space would jeopardise their own security, as the mobilisation of a fraction of that number, say of 10,000, for a right or wrong cause based on fact or fiction, may have disastrous law and order implications. Moreover, an epidemic of any sort may also take a huge toll. Inadequate and improper water treatment and sewer facilities will be a breeding ground for such outbreaks. The locals also feel that sinking of thousands shallow tubewells and hundreds of deep tubewells for extracting ground water in a region that is known to be water scarce, in all likelihood will lead to further subsidence of the groundwater table, with adverse impacts not only on drinking water but also on water for irrigation purposes.
Thirdly, after the initial phase of emergency response, any strategy to deal with the refugee population has to factor in the needs of the local population. For a region that straddles in the red zone of the poverty map, the huge burden of the extra population has to be compensated by developing a mechanism that addresses the insecurity of the locals and covers “health, education, gender development, infrastructure, environment preservation and other support”. They insist that this provision be incorporated into the Rohingya strategy and also in the forms of the NGO Affairs Bureau.
Fourthly, the locals feel that aid efforts are being seriously impaired by the endless visits of local and foreign dignitaries. State protocol demands that the Deputy Commissioner and the Superintendent of Police greet in person some of the VVIPs and they be escorted with contingents of armed police to ensure safe movements. “Can we afford such luxuries at a time when the nation is in emergency mode”, some ask. Visits, speeches, and photo sessions of ministers, MPs, and sundry in the refugee camps only reflect how insensitive they are of the urgency of the situation. Perhaps time has come to remind the VIPs during their incoming flight to Cox's Bazar the adage that acts of genuine charity demand that the left hand does not get to know what the right hand gives!
And finally, local NGOs feel they have been marginalised. The obsession of UN agencies and bilateral donors to assign responsibility of distribution of certain provisions to a mega-NGO, which thus far had very limited engagement and experience in refugee management, is deeply resented. Contesting the “total and single handle approach” in taking care of food supply and education, they demand allowing local Civil Society Organisations (CSO) a role for “ensuring innovation and diversification”. In a note to the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator and Under Secretary General to Office of the Humanitarian Affairs who visited Cox's Bazar in early October they observed such an approach is contrary to the principle of “equitable and dignified partnership for an accountable and sustainable growth of CSOs in Bangladesh”. The local organisations were unequivocal in demanding that they should not be seen as “local implementers/partners” but as “decision making partners”. Their list of demands include hiring local consultants, staff members and vendors for supplying goods and services; non-poaching of local staff members by mega-NGOs and international agencies; and publication of project and aid data along the lines of International Aid Transparency Initiative principles.
The above narrative adequately establishes the point that refugee management is a complex and multi-faceted challenge. The best way to meet this challenge is through making decisions with a participatory process. The people of Ukhia and Teknaf have demonstrated their courage and fortitude in facing a challenge of mammoth magnitude. Despite severe resource constraints, they have remained resolute in upholding the dignity of the refugees, sacrificing their own interests. It's time that those at the helm of the state acknowledge their contribution and ensure their voices are heeded in planning and implementing the refugee management strategy.
C R Abrar teaches International Relations at the University of Dhaka. This piece is based on his experience gained from recent his visit to Ukhia and Teknaf this week.