Rohingya influx, 3 years on: Cox’s Bazar people paying heavily for prolonged stay of the persecuted group by Myanmar amid COVID-19 pandemic

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Persecuted Rohingyas by Myanmar fled to Bangladesh

Enamul Hafiz Latifee compiles,

 

What the locals of Cox’s Bazar find when they set eyes on Rohingyas, who took refuge in Bangladesh since 2017 as they fled military persecution in their homes in Myanmar?

They are not the same people now to the locals that they thought about them when they heartily welcomed more than a million Rohingyas to their localities three years back.

 

The locals knew not what troubles awaited them as the Rohingyas gained in years. The more, the merrier mindset with which the locals of this tourist district of Cox’s Bazar extended their helping hands to the Rohingyas, the more, the messier real-world scenario exposes.

 

The Rohingyas placed an increased burden on the locals, including great economic and social costs and also dangers. Virtually they have created the potential for instability in the localities as well as other parts of the country.

The presence of huge Rohingyas, housed in camps near local municipal wards, has led to labour insecurity, food inflation, water shortage, environmental damage and also anti-social activities, locals told BSS.

 

“In the beginning, every one of our locality welcomed the displaced Rohingyas on humanitarian ground. We worked for their food, clothes, and shelter. But, the situation has changed now as they have already become a burden for us,” said the President of Civil Societies Forum Cox’s Bazar Fazlul Kader.

Ukhiya and Teknaf Upazilas in Cox’s Bazar, which border Myanmar, house to some 570,000 Bangladeshis and they are the immediate hosts of the Rohingyas. But the sudden influx of over a million outsider- Rohingyas persecuted by  Myanmar hardline Buddhists and military groups, has put the lives of locals in difficulty.

And still, after three years, Myanmar is substantially delaying the return of Rohnigya as remarked by Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina,

 

Potential risks for the widespread of COVID-19

And now with the COVID-19 pandemic that is ravaging the world, people are worried about its potential spread in an area that is so densely populated with locals and refugees. A complete lockdown is in place in the camps as in the rest of Bangladesh, but people are anxious.

Rohingyas living in camps are trapped there for long, people are born into camps, grow up in camps, and become adults in camps. Some move to urban areas, receive little or no aid and sink into destitution. Others try to travel to wealthier countries taking substantial risks in spreading COVID-19 all around if it gets caught by it.

 

Camp area economy is flourishing but sees the reverse picture outside the camps

The government officials are coordinating the works of aid agencies. In the camps, Rohingyas are getting food, water, shelter, schools, sanitation, and most importantly, peace. The local economy of the camp areas seems to be thriving and the Kutupalong site is full of small shops selling essential commodities. Many Rohingya youths are doing jobs at NGOs too.

Local people were losing jobs or getting paid less than before, the prices of essential commodities soared due to high demand, local produces were not in demand as goods from outside flooded the camps, and people have lost their livelihood from cultivable land that had to be surrendered for the refugee camps, according to locals.

 

Labour market turns volatile 

Ukhiya Upazila Chairman Prof Hamidul Haq Chowdhury said there was a drastic fall in the wage of the locals due to the surge of skilled and unskilled labourers from all parts of the country and abroad to Cox’s Bazar.

 

Prices of essentials and basic food items go high

Dr. Younus, owner of SR Pharmacy at Ukhiya Bazar, said the living cost of the local people is increasing day by day as the prices of essential commodities, such as edible oil, ginger, garlic, vegetables, spinach and fish, have increased.

“For donation from different organizations, the purchasing capacity of Rohingyas is higher than the locals. So the locally produced best category products are going to the camps. We are consuming low-standard products with higher prices,” he added.

He said the local people purchased per kg eggplant only at five Taka during the season, but now the price stands at Taka 40 to 50.

 

Agricultural production slumps

Agricultural production in Cox’s Bazar has also been affected by the influx as most of the arable lands in the area were occupied for building shelters, operations activities of the UN agencies, and infrastructures for NGOs.

Danu Miah Sawdagor, a hotel owner of the Ukhiya Bazar, said he had been cultivating crops and planting trees on 13 acres of government land for more than 20 years.

After the Rohingya influx, he had to return the land to the government for building refugee camps, army camps and hospitals, he added.

“A major part of my income used to come from the land. So I have to face problems. Now, I have no land, except for the hotel. I am living in a rented house with my five-member family,” he said.

 

Local businesses bear the pain and see no gain

President of Cox’s Bazar Chamber of Commerce and Industry Abu Morshed Chowdhury Khoka said: “Most of the products for the relief come from the other places or countries. If the aid agencies buy the products from the local markets and local industries can be flourished.”

Moreover, Ukhiya Upazila Chairman Prof Hamidul Haq Chowdhury said, the Rohingya are illegally selling some of their surplus goods freely received from the UN agencies, impacting the local producers and vendors.

 

Forests and biodiversities compromised

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), which has been working with both the refugees and the locals, has said that Cox’s Bazar had one of the most pristine and biologically diverse forests in Bangladesh before the refugees arrived.

“But swathes of forest have been cleared for cultivation, felled to make way for refugee camps, and stripped for firewood. This has resulted in widespread loss of biodiversity and wildlife habitats,” the FAO said in a recent statement.

Abdul Sukkur, a resident of Sainkhali village under Kadamtali union of the Ukhiya, said he along with many others of his village took part in a social afforestation programme and planted trees of different species in the area.

“But when the trees were only 3-4 years old, we had to return the land to the government for Rohingya camps. So, we incurred a huge loss,” he added.

 

Anti-Social activity increases

Another worry is the rise in different anti-social activities, including robbery, drug smuggling, human trafficking and conflict with the local community.

Superintendent of Police at Cox’s Bazar ABM Mashud Hossain said since August 2017, a total of 585 cases have been filed so far against 1,294 Rohingyas as they were involved in different criminal activities.

Law enforcement agencies are ensuring full-proof security in the camp areas but the incidents of crimes and human trafficking are common there.

 

Economic burden broadens

Citing the findings from a 2019 study, Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) executive director Dr. Fahmida Khatun said required fund for Rohingya population amounts to US$ 1,211 million a year.

“This was just our estimation which will be required for the Rohingyas. Most of the fund is coming from donors. Bangladesh government’s support is mainly in kind. For example, the local administration, members of law enforcement agencies are taking care of the Rohingyas,” she added.

She said if the Rohingyas do not go back to Myanmar, the ultimate burden will fall on the government of Bangladesh.

“We have to keep in mind that in the future, the donor agencies will gradually cut their support because they will have other priorities. Every day, new emergencies are being emerged around the world. And now, the coronavirus has engulfed the entire world,” she added.

 

Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Md Mahbub Alam Talukder said the Bangladesh government has no separate allocation for Rohingyas, but salaries of officials of different ministries and law enforcement agencies are coming from the government treasury.

He said around 53 officials are working under the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) office and different law enforcement agencies, including Armed Police Battalion (APBN), Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) and Bangladesh Army, to ensure safety and security in the Rohingya camps.

He said the government is building a barbed-wire fence around refugee camps at Ukhiya and Teknaf with Taka 210 crore to prevent the refugees from leaving their shelters.

 

A senior official of the Foreign Affairs Ministry said the ministry opened a separate wing for Myanmar to resolve the long-standing Rohingya crisis.

He said the Bangladesh government allocated around Taka 3,000 crore for the construction of homes for Rohingyas on Bhashan Char, an island in the southeastern district of Noakhali, for relocating one lakh Rohingyas there ensuring all basic amenities and livelihood opportunities.

“The government has already developed Bhashan Char Island to accommodate them, but the relocation process hangs in the balance,” he added.

 

Rohingya leader Hafez Jalal said they are living with peace in the camp as the Bangladesh government, law enforcement agencies and different international organisations are providing all sorts of facilities, including healthcare, sanitation, electricity and food, for them.

“But we want to go home and lead lives with dignity as citizens eventually. We want to go back to our paternal land where my father and forefather lived,” he said.

 

Mahmudul Haque Babul, a local crime reporter, said every one of the locality wants a good solution to the long-pending Rohingya crisis.

“As human being, the displaced Rogingyas deserve living with dignity. So, I urge the world leaders to come forward to pave a way for giving them a secured and dignified life so that they can return to their homeland,” he added.

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