In the city of refugees: Rohingya camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar

As the monsoon rains threaten to ravage the Rohingya refugee camps, relief workers struggle to balance the vital work of damage control with the pressing demands of inter-personal conflict resolution. Vidya Krishnan reports on the routine tragedies of life in the world’s largest ‘refugee city’.

Updated - December 01, 2021 06:47 am IST

Published - June 30, 2018 12:15 am IST

Cox’s Bazar is a vast conglomeration of human settlements on unstable land that slips and slides every time it rains. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, over 900,000 Rohingya, including those who had arrived in earlier waves of exodus, live in makeshift shelters.

Cox’s Bazar is a vast conglomeration of human settlements on unstable land that slips and slides every time it rains. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, over 900,000 Rohingya, including those who had arrived in earlier waves of exodus, live in makeshift shelters.

If you travel south from Cox’s Bazar, a small port city on Bangladesh’s southeastern coast, the drive along the world’s longest natural beach seems rather pleasant. Scenic, even. But an hour into the journey and it all begins to change. The roads get narrower and muddier. The beach disappears. And looming in front, as far as the eye can see, is a vast conglomeration of human settlements that ought to be called a ‘city’ but is the opposite of one, with its own version of the normal.

The first sign of the new ‘normal’ comes not far from the city’s entry point: a young man’s body lies in the middle of the street. There are no visible wounds on the body, but blood trickles out of the mouth. An older woman, presumably his mother, bends over him, sobbing, while a small crowd around them is engaged in heated argument.


Not only are altercations common, but they often end in violence, say aid workers stationed at the largest refugee camp in the world. Early this month, the head majhi of the Balukhali camp, 35-year-old Arif Ullah, was hacked to death by unknown assailants. In January, another camp leader, 60-year-old Yusuf Ali, was stabbed to death. Days before Ali’s death, Mohammad Yusuf, leader of the neighbouring Thaingkhali camp, was shot dead.

The police and aid workers say a struggle for control of supplies to the camps is behind much of the violence. “We are advised not to get involved in fights within the camps. They often turn ugly and there is nothing we can do,” says a social worker who landed in Cox’s Bazar three months ago to work in the refugee camps.

The monsoon threat

As of June 21, over 706,364 Rohingya Muslims had fled Myanmar since August 25, 2017, when the country’s army began a brutal campaign of violence against the community. The mass carnage was described by the United Nations as having all the “hallmarks of genocide”. The vast majority of the population that escaped across the border into Bangladesh were accommodated in the Kutupalong-Balukhali refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar district.

The shelters in the camps, numbering 27 in all, are made of bamboo and tarpaulin, since conventional or permanent construction materials are not permitted for what is supposed to be a temporary living arrangement for non-citizens. According to the UN Refugee Agency, 919,000 Rohingya (including those who had arrived in earlier waves of exodus) live in these makeshift shelters built on muddy hillsides.

The camps, spread over more than 1,100 hectares, all sprang up in a matter of six months. About 4,000 acres of green forests surrounding the Teknaf Wildlife Sanctuary and Himchari National Park were levelled to make way for this ‘refugee city’. Such rapid deforestation has meant that a city-sized habitation has come up on unstable land that slips and slides every time it rains. It doesn’t help either that it is close to the Bay of Bengal, one of the most cyclone-prone regions in the world.

The Joint Response Plan (JRP) of the UN Refugee Agency estimates that it will need $951 million for a variety of projects necessary to make the camp-city habitable. These include supplying 16 million litres of water a day, 12,200 metric tonnes of food a month, and constructing 50,000 latrines and 30 sludge management facilities to process the 420,000 kg of faeces produced a day. As of June 21, it only had 22% of the required funds.


But the top priority right now for the U.N. and aid agencies running the camps is to protect the refugees from the damage that the monsoons are bound to wreak. A spokesperson for Médecins Sans Frontières says the humanitarian aid organisation is preparing for a “massive cholera outbreak”, a possibility given that the hastily built latrines have begun to overflow and contaminate water wells. As of June 29, 3,859 acute watery diarrhoea cases were reported from June 14 to 24.

The rains have already caused damage to infrastructure. Heavy rainfall earlier this month disrupted services in 12 health centres. From June 22 to 27, the 252 mm of rainfall caused havoc, especially on June 24 and 25 when the camps had to withstand not only floods but also windstorms and landslips. About 32,000 refugees had to be relocated. After having rushed to build toilets, aid agencies are now scrambling to de-sludge and decommission nearly 30,000 latrines, which are at risk of flooding. Administering a city-size population without the kind of infrastructure that a city requires is no easy task. And if security, sanitation, and primary health care — essentials that most residents of functional cities take for granted — are precious commodities here, it is not for want of trying.

“These camps are not like an ordinary city,” says Shamimul Huq Pavel, camp in charge (CiC) for five of the 27 camps. He works for Bangladesh’s Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC), which is responsible for running the refugee camps. Given that the Rohingya are officially ‘stateless’, the RRRC’s ambit is a combination of disaster management, foreign affairs and home affairs. The bureaucrat appointed by it, picked from the Bangladesh Civil Service, has the sole authority for all things that happen inside the 27 camps. The RRRC’s responsibilities range from dispute resolution between families to setting up basic infrastructure and relief coordination between the Bangladesh government, U.N. agencies and aid organisations.

“We are building culverts, toilets, roads and hospitals even as they crumble. It’s like mopping the floor while the tap is running,” says Pavel. “The camps have four entry and exit points. Even a short spell of rain can cause vehicles to get stuck in the mud. People will have to lay new bricks on the road — literally lay a new road — if aid is to reach the refugees.” One of the four access points, the Army Road, has been closed till mid-July when brick laying is expected to be completed.

On a drive to one of the camps, Pavel points to an overturned truck. “That’s from yesterday,” he says. “The road is so narrow that there is not enough space for people and vehicles. A woman, carrying her baby, was hit by this truck. Both died.” Tragedies of this kind have caused strife between the refugees and the host communities living in Ukhiya, the sub-district of Cox’s Bazar where the camps are located. However, daily concerns are not about hostile relations with host communities, they are about resolving conflicts.

About a slap

As foreign nationals, the Rohingya refugees are not allowed to wander outside the camps, let alone look for a job in Bangladesh. But being forced to live in close quarters with thousands of strangers in an overcrowded, fenced-in space that offers very little by way of productive engagement, either for men and women of working age or for adolescents and children, can be complicated.


Families fight every day over food, medicine and space, making the CiCs’ job extremely challenging. While most CiCs get one camp each to manage, three senior bureaucrats — Pavel, Mohammad Reza and A.S.M. Obaidullah — manage multiple camps. Pavel, who manages the most number of camps, is responsible for 200,000 refugees.

On June 7, at 11 a.m., he walks into his office, a two-room structure of bamboo and tin sheets. It has a modest wooden table, a fan, and a few windows that make the humidity a little more bearable. His team is working on a Cyclone Preparedness Programme (CPP), a critical component of which is to remedy the impact of the storm on the refugees’ bamboo-tarpaulin shelters. A few of the CPP team members are busy organising a Fire Rescue Training for the refugees. “One fire in one small corner of the camp can burn down the whole place. We are training the Rohingya men to use extinguishers,” says Arup Kshetrimayum, Pavel’s deputy.

Pavel wants to concentrate all his energies on this task but a steady stream of refuges trickles into his room, seeking his intervention in yet another crisis in their lives. Faiza, a woman in her early twenties, has a baby in her arms, and is sobbing incessantly as she waits in the queue. When Pavel finally motions to her, she steps forward and narrates to him how the guard at the World Food Programme’s feeding centre had slapped her. “I was in the queue for my ration. He was allowing people behind me to jump the queue. When I complained, he slapped me,” she says. It’s a ‘he said, she said’ kind of dispute. Pavel, almost as a reflex from having dealt with innumerable such cases on a daily basis, instructs his CPP volunteer to go back with her, identify the guard, and bring him to the CiC office.

Rohingya refugees at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh June 15, 2018.

Rohingya refugees at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh June 15, 2018.


As she leaves, Faiza points to her swollen cheek as evidence of the incident having occurred, and adds that she is on a roza (fast) to drive home the point that the guard had ‘sinned’ by raising his hand on someone fasting during Ramzan. But Pavel’s attention has already moved on to the next bunch of visitors — a team from Oxfam that wants permission to distribute water purifying kits in Camps 3 and 4, both of which fall under Pavel’s jurisdiction.

Pavel signs some papers and checks a calendar on the wall to make sure that there isn’t a ‘double booking’. “We have few distribution points in the camp. If we promise the space to one aid agency, and later find out that the place was already being used for some other purpose, there would be chaos,” he explains as he turns to the next in line.

These are a group of 30 imams. As the makeshift city takes shape, so do makeshift mosques. This is a special time for Rohingya Muslims, who for the first time in many years can observe the holy month without fear of persecution. It turns out that the imams, in white robes and skull caps, have arrived two hours early to meet the CiC, crowding the small office space. “Shut the doors and ask them to come back at 3 p.m.,” Pavel instructs his members as they break for lunch. He lights a cigarette, takes his first quick break of the day, and gets back to work.

Crimes without punishment

A CPP volunteer enters Pavel’s room, opens a cabinet and pulls out a machete. A man had walked into Pavel’s office the day before and handed over the blood-stained weapon that he had used to hack his friend following a disagreement. The friend had suffered grievous injuries but survived. “He is in the hospital and will recover. The attacker deposited the machete here and made a confession,” says Pavel. “Yesterday was a crazy day.” The ‘machete man’ was handed over to the Bangladesh police stationed in the camps. “We have kept him under observation but legally he is free,” explains Pavel.


Checking crime inside the refugee camps is almost impossible for the administrators. While the refugees are subject to the laws of the country they seek asylum in, the resources needed for policing the sprawling yet tightly packed camps, finding space for prisons, and managing jails and courts are hard to come by. Also, hunting for the suspects among a million refugees who are constantly on the move between the camps is not easy.

The staff of organisations that work with refugee communities are trained to handle these situations, says Shelley Thakral, Communication Officer, World Food Programme. “We try to address situations as they happen, before they flare up,” she says. With the Government of Bangladesh, the International Organisation for Migration, the UNHCR, and over a hundred NGOs getting together for weekly meetings to ensure that communication is smooth, some issues have been settled, Thakral says. When the Rohingya had first moved, the priority was to provide information about where people could get food, clothes and medicines. Now, the messaging is about evacuation. “We tell the community about identified areas for relocation. There is a flag system to guide the way,” she says.

But everything comes to a standstill when people fight, says Pavel, and that is why it is important to resolve conflicts inside the camps. “This is a city of people who have to share with strangers everything from a needle to a house. We have to resolve fights as soon as possible. At least we try to. Our main objectives — building bridges and roads to make sure that aid can reach the camps — will suffer if these smaller disputes are not sorted out.”

Of course, all the CiCs would like to focus solely on building camp infrastructure. But this is not possible as everyday conflicts keep snowballing into violent fights. So, much of their time goes into dealing with quarrels over an extra ration card, a lost bangle, extramarital affairs, or a slap.

Next in line to meet Pavel is a young woman, Zabiyah, who tells him that she had lost her family while fleeing the Myanmar army. She had subsequently found, on arriving at the camp here, that her husband had died, but after taking another wife. She now lives with her grandson in a different house in the same camp as her deceased husband’s new wife. Her problem is that there are now two families on the same ration card. A man taking on a second or third wife is quite common among Rohingya. “Because polygamy is accepted, these cases are often complicated,” explains Kshetrimayum. “The Rohingya have faced so much food insecurity that they want to get extra ration cards when families split. Sometimes families come here and separate — or tell CiCs that they have separated — so that they can get two cards. They get more food provisions that way.”

After Zabiyah leaves, Pavel explains how he resolved her problem: “I told her to go home and get some sleep. There is enough food for every one here. No one will starve in these camps.”

Meanwhile, the CPP volunteers come back with the guard who had allegedly slapped Faiza. She also returns with them, still crying. The guard denies having slapped her. By now it is four in the afternoon, and this dispute is in its sixth hour.

Faiza has also added another layer to her story: When she was slapped, her nose pin came off. Among Rohingya, like in many Asian countries, a nose pin signifies that the woman is married. It is a part of traditional bridal jewellery and is considered auspicious. “My husband is not letting me back in my house because I lost my nose pin,” Faiza tells the officials.

Pavel takes a deep breath, and pauses for a minute to consider a fair resolution. He then speaks crisply to the guard: “It’s a hot day. People have to line up for hours to wait for rations. You cannot let people jump the queue. You cannot hit people.” Then to Faiza: “You cannot hassle the guards, they have a stressful job. Hundreds of people are waiting in queues patiently. So should you.” And finally, addressing both of them about the nose pin, he says, “The guard will buy Faiza a new nose pin.”

By 5 p.m., most officials and aid organisations are packing up to leave. They are all heading back to Cox’s Bazar city, where the vast majority of the visitors and aid workers live. As they depart each evening, law and order inside the camp deteriorates. Pavel will discover the extent of this breakdown when he returns to work the next morning. For now, the dark clouds hovering over the camps are the biggest threat.

Pavel is nearly done wrapping up work for the day when a couple walks in. They lay a thick file of papers on his desk, and as the man begins to talk, the woman starts crying. “She has a swelling in her stomach. She is in pain but we can’t take her out of the camp for treatment,” says Tahir, the husband. Pavel scans the prescription, which reveals that the woman has Hepatitis C. He hands her some cash to get tested at a private clinic, and steps out of his office muttering, “Will figure something out by tomorrow.”

As we drive back to Cox’s Bazar, Pavel remembers the young man we had found lying in the middle of the street. “He survived,” he says. “He was taken to the hospital on time.” And what happened to the man who had attacked him? “Nothing.”

( Names of the refugees have been changed on request )

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