In the autumn of 2017, some 700,000 Rohingyas fled a wave of violence in Myanmar and arrived in the Cox’s Bazar district in neighbouring Bangladesh. They settled in an area already inhabited by a large number of Rohingya refugees who had previously escaped violence in Myanmar.
Many of them left with just the clothes on their backs, as their houses and villages were being attacked, burnt, and destroyed.
Despite having one of the world’s largest population densities, Bangladesh continues to generously host the world’s largest – and growing - refugee settlement. The more than 30 camps are home to over 860,000 Rohingya refugees.
Now, nearly four years after the latest mass displacement from Myanmar, the outlook of them returning is bleak.
The sheer population density within the settlement poses grave risks to the many Rohingya refugees. The vast majority of shelters within the settlement are constructed with bamboo and tarpaulin, leading to risks of fires erupting and quickly spreading.
This became tragically evident on 22 March 2021 as a devastating fire rapidly spread through the camp killing several people, razing 10,000 homes to the ground, and leaving almost 50,000 people displaced.
"Suddenly it was burning all around us," says Mariam.
Along with her husband and children, she is one of the many Rohingya refugees who arrived in the Cox's Bazar district in 2017 and one of the many families that were affected by the fire in March.
"We had to flee immediately. Everyone was running, and I lost sight of my children. I looked for them for two days before, fortunately, if found them with the help of DRC."
Adding to the gravity of the situation, the fire occurred while DRC, the government of Bangladesh, the United Nations and other NGOs were preparing for the annual monsoon season. This runs from June to October, where the risk of floods, cyclones, torrential rain, and mudslides drastically increases.
“The seasonal rains turn camps into flooded areas and we know that people will lose their homes and belongings once more if we don’t respond in time,” says DRC’s Country Director in Bangladesh, Sumitra Mukherjee.
“Those who were affected by the fire in March are even more exposed. And there is furthermore a risk that capacity to respond will be depleted if we do not secure sufficient investment and funds to help them now – both to establish new shelter and to make sure that they and other vulnerable refugees are prepared for the difficulties that are coming with the rainy season.”
Mariam and her family also fear the seasonal rains and worry about how to cope during the monsoon.
“I don't know how we are going to survive once the rain starts,” she says.
Living in such close quarters with inadequate access to clean water and sanitation facilities makes it tremendously difficult, but even more important, to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. In case of an outbreak, the virus can very rapidly spread through the camp.
As of April 2021, there were officially 465 confirmed COVID-19 cases among the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and 6,693 cases in the host community according to WHO. But the real numbers are likely considerably higher.
At the same time, a DRC report has shown that the COVID-19-related lockdown in the country has worsened vulnerabilities in host communities, including among female-headed households, pregnant and lactating mothers, and people with disabilities, as well as low-income earners who survive as day labourers.
DRC has been present in Bangladesh since 2017 when the first team started providing emergency assistance to the Rohingya population arriving from neighbouring Myanmar and the communities hosting them who are often poor and already living under pressure and with limited resources.
The Rohingya are a mostly Muslim minority in Myanmar, where the majority are Buddhists. They primarily come from Rakhine State in northern Myanmar, but following waves of violence, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees have fled the country and are now residing in Bangladesh – primarily in the Cox’s Bazar district.
In 1982, Myanmar denied its Rohingya population citizenship, effectively rendering them stateless. They have since then suffered from violence, persecution, and denial of basic rights. The latest mass exodus began in late summer 2017, when more than 700,000 Rohingyas were forced to flee Myanmar into neighbouring Bangladesh over the course of just a few months.
Today, more than 860,000 Rohingya refugees reside in the Cox’s Bazar district in Bangladesh. On top of that, the mass influx has left 444,000 host community members in need of humanitarian assistance, while a further 509,000 host community members need aid as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the 2021 Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis, 1.8 million people need humanitarian assistance in the Cox’s Bazar district.
DRC has been present in Bangladesh since 2017 when the latest mass influx of Rohingya refugees began. As of January 2021, DRC works in ten Rohingya camps and two host-community wards covering four sectors:
As the fire that raged through four camps in the world’s largest refugee complex in Bangladesh is subsiding, the tragic loss of lives and massive damages to property are emerging. Several persons are confirmed dead, and thousands of Rohingya refugee families are left homeless. DRC is right now mobilizing emergency assistance in the camps to respond to the needs for shelter and protection among the surviving victims of the fire.
Almost one million Rohingyas live as refugees in make-shift homes in Bangladesh's Cox’s Bazar – a district that has become known for hosting the world’s largest refugee camp. Years after a violent mass displacement of Rohingyas from their villages in Myanmar, the outlook of their return is looking bleak.
Read two poems written by Rohingya refugees currently in Cox's Bazar refugee camp in Bangladesh.