The overburdened refugee camps of southern Bangladesh

  • By Myanmar Now
  • 20/10/2017

Almost 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled across the border. (Photo: Joe Freeman)

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By Joe Freeman

The first thing you notice are the lines.

There are lines for tarp to build shelters. There are lines for food. There are lines that break off into other lines.

The sun is so punishing that one aid agency handed out umbrellas.

When I asked my translator what people were waiting for, his answer was always the same: “relief.”

Earlier this month, I visited the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar district, in southern Bangladesh.

I was there to report, but I spent what must have been many hours quietly walking, moving through crowds, dazed into a sort of trance by the sheer humanity.

When I arrived at what I thought was the end of one community, a new community would stretch out below, and the pattern repeated itself, as far as I could see.

The United Nations estimates that nearly 600,000 have fled Rakhine State since August 25, after the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army launched attacks on security forces. The military response from Myanmar prompted an exodus of unprecedented proportions.

There are almost 1 million Rohingya refugees now living in Bangladesh, and while members of the persecuted Muslim minority have been seeking safety across the border for decades, most have come in under two months.

Inside Myanmar, there is widespread suspicion that estimates of those who have fled over the border are blown out of proportion. In remarks posted to his Facebook page this month, Commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing said the numbers are exaggerated.

But inside the camps, there is little doubt, because there is little room for doubt.

There is little room in general.

The tops of the blue, white and orange tarps cover the hillsides like a raggedy quilt, filling up any available space.

New arrivals assemble in a kind of open-air pen, waiting for instructions. They come on trucks and buses after crossing.

Almost no one is sitting still.

Labourers dig foundations for mobile towers. Trucks groan up the hill carrying concrete basins that will be used for toilets. Men balance long pieces of bamboo on their shoulders.  

As I conducted an interview among some trees next to a field, a family arrived with tarp, an axe and a saw. They plopped the materials down and got to work building a shelter. Signs next to the road warned of wild elephants.

I visited a makeshift cemetery on top of a hill. Fresh piles of brown dirt were lumped over the new graves, some of them small enough for children. Sticks marked their location, rising out of the ground in an attempt to mimic the shape of tombstones.

There is not enough room for the dead.

At the bottom of the cemetery a family waits under a UNHCR tent. The baby has diarrhea and is being held by a child not much older.

In the camps, children live next to the graves of other children, and the sun sets over a temporary metropolis that feels more permanent by the day.

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