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15 Dec 2019 5:18
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  •   Home > News > International

    Kutupalong refugee camp, home to more than 600,000 Rohingya, faces daily challenges

    With a population greater than Canberra and Hobart combined, Kutupalong refugee camp is home to 600,000 people and more than half of them are children. They fight a daily battle for survival.


    The International Criminal Court (ICC) has announced a full investigation into the alleged forced deportation of hundreds of thousands of people from Myanmar to Bangladesh, with charges of crimes against humanity hanging in the balance.

    A few weeks ago, I travelled to the new home of 600,000 people displaced from Myanmar. We drove down a single-lane road through rice paddies and beachfronts along the Bay of Bengal to the largest refugee camp in the world.

    As our minibus full of NGO workers and journalists approached the camp, our whole field of view filled with roofs — small ones — stretching far into the distance.

    Once inside, every slope, every valley, every hilltop was covered in shelters. It felt like a different country.

    This is Kutupalong camp, Bangladesh, it has a population greater people than Canberra and Hobart combined, but here they're crammed into just 13 square kilometres.

    The people who live here have escaped unimaginable horrors, but the camp isn't a place where they can let down their guard, protected from the world's ills. Speaking to residents of the camp I discovered their battle to stay safe is daily, with threats ranging from sexual harassment to stampeding elephants

    Meanwhile, some Bangladeshis have accused refugees of being embroiled in smuggling a drug called 'yaba', and security experts are concerned the hopelessness in the camp could prime a generation of young men for radicalisation and militancy.

    Life inside the camp

    The shelters in Kutupalong are made from bamboo and UNHCR tarpaulins, or even old food aid sacks, strapped on with rope.

    The residents of the camp are Rohingya, an ethnic group which has been called one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Most arrived here in 2017 from Myanmar, after what a UN fact-finding mission said bears the hallmarks of genocide.

    Their native country, Myanmar, does not recognise Rohingya as citizens. On the other hand, their new home of Bangladesh has refused to officially declare them 'refugees' because doing so would make it less likely that Myanmar will take them back. Instead, the people of Kutupalong are stuck in limbo, in a gargantuan camp on the Bangladeshi coast.

    Climbing up the main camp road, we come to a hilltop and the Rohingya Women and Girls Empowerment Centre, a female-led business collective.

    The people of the camp have had to find ways of making money since their displacement two years ago. An NGO has provided 58 sewing machines, and this female-led business collective now takes contracts to make clothing like school uniforms so women in the camp can earn their own income.

    I took off my shoes to go inside and met a dozen young women seated in a semi-circle on a mat at the end of the room. As I got closer, I saw many were only teenagers.

    Their elected leader, an 18-year-old named Agitda, said even though the women escaped the campaign of violence in Myanmar, they were not safe in the camp or the unisex toilet blocks that have been erected.

    "We are facing enormous difficulties, [even] going to toilets," she said.

    "We are harassed by adult males when we go out."

    Agitda said her group of women can't let their guard down, even around other Rohingya.

    "We cannot trust anyone here," she said.

    All the women wore niqabs and only their eyes were visible. We were told not to ask anyone except Agitda questions, because it would be too stressful.

    Many still have severe trauma from their displacement from Myanmar during 2017.

    "We were raped, our houses and villages were burned down," said Agitda.

    "We had to cross mountains, rivers and walked very long journey. It took almost seven days to get here.

    Strikingly, despite having fled possible genocide in Myanmar two years ago, all Agitda and her group want is to go home.

    "We need to go back to Myanmar," she said.

    "Myanmar is our motherland and we really want to go back there, we cannot live here like this."

    How the Rohingya got here

    The Rohingya are a Muslim minority in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Traditionally, most of them have lived in Myanmar's Rakhine State, which borders Bangladesh.

    The ICC has announced it is pursuing an investigation into whether they were forcibly deported by Myanmar, through systematic acts of violence, and whether the Rohingya were persecuted because of their race or ethnicity.

    The investigation comes after two other moves this week. In Argentina, human rights advocates filed a lawsuit in a federal court against Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the commander in chief of the military, Min Aung Hlaing, for crimes against the Rohingya.

    The west African nation of The Gambia also filed a lawsuit against Myanmar in the International Court of Justice, accusing Myanmar of committing genocide against the Rohingya.

    The violence that forced the exodus of Rohingyas started in August 2017. It was a response to a group of Rohingya insurgents who attacked police outposts.

    The insurgents were more of a ramshackle mob, according to former Australian human rights commissioner Chris Sidoti.

    "There were large numbers of people involved but the vast majority were untrained, armed with kitchen knives, bows and arrows and slingshots, and boldly I guess, but stupidly, decided to take on the might of the Myanmar military," he said.

    "The [military] response started literally within one to two hours of the attack being launched."

    Mr Sidoti was one of the leaders of a UN fact-finding mission into the violence, which found the military response was so vicious, so widespread and so systematic, the leaders of the Myanmar military should be put on trial for genocide.

    Mr Sidoti listed his reasons to me: "The conduct towards people, the burning of villages, most worryingly the scale of mass gang-rape of multiple women that occurred in almost every village attacked by the military."

    When I put this to the Myanmar government, in a statement a spokesperson accused the UN fact-finding mission of being politically motivated and having "emotional self-interest".

    "Let us be very clear that the issue at the Northern tip of Rakhine State is neither an issue of religious persecution nor act of deporting a group of people out of the country," the spokesperson said.

    "Myanmar is a highly diverse, multi-religious and multi-ethnic country with over a hundred different ethnic national races of different cultures."

    The UN team collected more than 800 witness statements from survivors streaming across the border into Bangladesh and Mr Sidoti has vivid memories of the interviews.

    "A woman I spoke to on the first visit, only two months after the events began — told me about how she nursed her two-year-old child for a couple of hours, as the child died after having been shot," he said.

    "[I met] a 12-year-old boy who's now the head of a family of five kids down to the age of two, because both his parents were killed.

    "Every single one of those 800 people has a personal story of extraordinary tragedy, of a level that is very difficult for me as an Australian to imagine," he said.

    Since 2017, around three-quarters of a million Rohingya have fled across the border into Bangladesh, wounded and devastated.

    'They should go back to Myanmar'

    Many Bangladeshis would agree with Agitda, after years of hosting nearly a million Rohingya refugees, many are ready to see them return to Myanmar.

    Bangladesh is already one of the world's most densely populated countries. To give you some idea, Bangladesh's landmass could fit into Australia 50 times — yet it has about six and a half times more people, with a population of around 160 million.

    It's an extremely low-lying country. The IMF says up to one-third of the population could be displaced by climate change.

    In a nutshell: Bangladesh has its own challenges.

    Accommodating the Rohingya has started to grate with some, particularly locals of the nearest town to Kutupalong camp, Cox's Bazar.

    A local government official in Cox's Bazar, Additional Deputy Commissioner Mr Mohammed Ashraful Afsar told me he expected the Rohingya to leave soon.

    "We are expecting a very quick repatriation so that we can relieve the pressure and tension [on] our host community," he said.

    He insists Bangladeshis have been a good host to the people of the camps and said when the refugees first arrived, locals brought them food and clothing. But, he added, Bangladeshis cannot be expected to host them forever.

    "As time passes, [locals will] be feeling more stressed and more tension," he said.

    Flashpoints are emerging between hosts and guests. The UNHCR gives the Rohingya households a small amount of LPG to cook with. But locals told me some Bangladeshis think of LPG as an extraordinary luxury, and resent seeing the Rohingya getting it for free.

    Accusations of drug smuggling

    Some locals have accused Rohingya of criminal activity. A few months ago, a local politician in Cox's Bazar was allegedly killed by Rohingya. In return, Human Rights Watch said, Bangladeshi police killed at least 11 Rohingya allegedly responsible.

    Mr Afsar told me there are fears Rohingya are involved in smuggling a drug known as yaba from Myanmar, which is a mix of methamphetamine and caffeine.

    When I pressed Mr Afsar for more details — how much is coming in? Where is it headed? Who is taking it? — he was a little vague.

    "Quantity I am not sure, because some [smugglers] are not caught," he said.

    He admitted before the 2017 influx of the Rohingya, yaba was already present in Bangladesh.

    The camp's population is only growing

    At the same time as local resentment has risen, numbers in the camp have risen too. More than half of Kutupalong camp are children. There are 170,000 kids under the age of four - and 31,000 under the age of one.

    To ease pressure, Bangladesh has come up with a creative solution: the government hopes to put some 100,000 Rohingya on an uninhabited island.

    The island, Bhasan Char, lies in the Bay of Bengal 30 kilometres from the mainland and looks like a small thumbprint on satellite photos. It has only existed for a few decades, formed by sediment washing down from the Himalayas.

    The island is just over 50 square kilometres but is very low lying — and it's apparently already eroding, at a rate of about half a kilometre a year.

    The UN's special rapporteur on Myanmar visited earlier this year, afterwards saying the island might not even be habitable.

    "It's had to be surrounded by a wall because storms and cyclones they get in the Bay of Bengal can be totally devastating," Mr Sidoti said.

    Drone footage of the island shows huddled red housing blocks fitting together with occasional gaps, like a bad round of Tetris. Mr Sidoti called the buildings "barracks".

    There are up to 16 of these rooms in a house, and each house shares two kitchens and a toilet block.

    A grey and white-striped lighthouse on the island is called the Beacon of Hope, which a handful of people — possibly construction workers who built the place — have rated as five-star accommodation on Google.

    Many Bangladeshis live on islands, local journalist Shahidul Islam Chowdhury told me, and they don't see what the fuss is about.

    "It's not that it's a prison island," he said.

    He doesn't believe the Rohingya have anything to fear from the Bangladeshi government. I asked if he could understand their anxiety.

    "But they fear it's a prison island," I said to him. "How do you overcome that fear?"

    "It is a huge challenge to overcome," he agreed.

    To date not a single Rohingya has gone to the island and the facility is still empty.

    Stampedes out of the forest

    Life in the camp is also complicated by elephants.

    Throughout Kutupalong camp, you can see giant signs in the shape of elephants painted in pink, yellow and green.

    I asked Rezaul Karim, the founder of local humanitarian organisation Prantic, about them and he explained they are to warn people about actual elephants.

    "Elephants used to graze on these areas," he said.

    The refugee settlement was built in the middle of what used to be a migratory path for elephants.

    The confused pachyderms still turn up in the camp, and they've been known to stampede and kill Rohingya.

    At this point, I started to wonder what people in the camps haven't had to contend with.

    A lost generation of children

    I went with Mr Karim to a learning centre in the camp where children who look anywhere between the ages of six and eight are learning to sing "Incy Wincy Spider", which was playing out of Huawei tablets clutched by each child.

    The centre isn't a school. The Bangladeshi government does not allow Rohingya children into state classrooms.

    They're also not allowed to learn Bangla, for fear they might mix with the host population.

    It's a deliberate policy, Mr Karim told me, to segregate the Rohingya. Instead, some children of the camps learn some English, basic maths and Burmese at these learning centres.

    I asked one boy what he did before he started at this centre.

    "Just playing," he said. He was eight years old.

    In the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, at the headquarters of the Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime police, the leadership is worried about the future of children in the camp.

    They think the next five years will be crucial.

    Additional Commissioner Monirul Islam told me, if in a few years' time Rohingya teenagers in the camp realise they can never go home, everything could get very ugly.

    "If they are not taken back by the Myanmar government, when these under-14 children [become] 18, 18-plus, then it will be a real threat for us, when they realise their deprivation is permanent," he said.

    "Then we think that most of them, at least a significant number of them will be radicalised."

    Mr Sidoti agreed.

    "More than half the people in the camps are kids," he said.

    "We're going to expose 600,000 to marginalization, alienation, an extreme sense of hopelessness and thereby make them ripe for radicalisation."

    Mr Sidoti said unless access to education and a full school day was dramatically increased, this would become a lost generation of children.

    The eight-year-old boy I met, blasting nursery rhymes through his tablet, is part of the generation these experts are worried about. He has been attending his learning centre for just two months.

    He told me he wants to study more. He wants to be a teacher when he grows up.

    I wished him good luck.

    Sarah Dingle travelled to Bangladesh on the East-West Centre's Senior Journalist Seminar. Listen to this episode of the Background Briefing podcast.

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved


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