Rohingya Refugees: Last Year’s Guests, This Year’s Burden
A Bangladeshi NGO revealed that only 30 percent of the population welcome the Rohingya.
It's hard to play the gracious host when your larder is bare, your pockets empty and your guests show no sign of leaving. Your mood darkens further when the visitors hurt your livelihood and the world gives them a better deal than you.
The warmth with which the Rohingya were received last year, in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar district that adjoins Myanmar, is now a faint, fading memory. Last year's guests are seen as this year's burden.
We saw them as our Muslim brothers and opened our doors to them. Kutupalong, 30 km from the border, is where most of the fleeing Rohingya have been placed. This was our land but now it is theirs and we don’t know if they will ever leave.Mr Bokhtiar Ahmed, Elected Councillor for Kutupalong’s local government authority
On their own soil, the hosts have been overwhelmed by the sheer number of visitors.
The most recent survey on camps in this part of Bangladesh alone showed that they were now home to 734,655 Rohingya people –– the largest refugee settlement in the world and about three times the local population of 255,100.
The survey by a Bangladeshi non-governmental organisation, BRAC, also revealed that only 30 percent of the local population now "welcomed" the visitors, while the rest opposed them on two main grounds.
First, they felt that the Rohingya had hurt them economically. And second, they were furious that while NGOs and the authorities from around were providing aid and relief to their guests from Myanmar, no one had spared a thought for the impoverished hosts.
Part of the annoyance is directed at their own government, which took an official decision to welcome the Rohingya when they were chased out of Myanmar last year. Posters of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina greet you at every camp –– there are 34 in all –– with the words "Mother of Humanity" written beneath each picture.
Our leadership is getting the credit for a good gesture, but the people here are paying the price.Mr Ahmed
Some 2,000 farmers had to surrender the land on which they grew their crops and grazed their animals or raised poultry to make way for the camps, he said. Most are yet to be compensated for this.
Among such inadvertent victims is farmer Nazir Husain, a father of six, who says he had five acres (2ha) of land taken away from him.
"I had taken the land on a 42-year lease just 10 years back," he said. "I used to grow fruits and grain on it but one day the army came and told me to leave. I didn't have a choice."
Mr Husain said he also owned six cows of which three died because their grazing pastures vanished when the camps were set up.
He sold the other three and, overnight, his average monthly income of 15,000 taka (S$242) fell to nil, he said. He is still waiting for some sort of compensation.
Councillor Ahmed said that among his constituents evicted from their lands, one is a widow whose home is next door to the Rohingya camps. "The irony is that people living on her land are being given food and relief supplies, while this widow who has lost her livelihood gets nothing. Why can't the NGOs give her some food too?" he asked.
Even those who were not evicted from their lands have been affected.
Vast swathes of trees have been cut down to make way for the camps and the relentless clearing of forest continues every day as the Rohingya go looking for firewood to light their stoves. "Without the trees, we are getting more floods and landslides. Just last week some fields got swamped with muddy water and the crops were ruined," said Mr Ahmed.
There are other irritations, too. With wells for the Rohingya dug 700 feet deep to draw water from the ground, the water levels have fallen and the locals find their own 70-feet deep wells running dry.
The narrow roads of Ukhiya, leading to the camps, are now clogged with traffic. Autorickshaw fares for children on their way to schools have doubled, the locals say. A journey between Ukhiya and Cox's Bazar town, which used to take one hour, now takes three as cars bearing officials and volunteers have taken over this stretch, says driver Kajol Borua.
Rents in the area have also shot up, as the NGOs seek space for their offices. Not surprisingly, the BRAC survey found that the incomes of the top 10 percent – the property owners – have gone up. But most people find the calculus of playing host working against them.
"This is a poor area," said Mr Ahmed. "The people would like to be generous but they have given away more than they can afford. We know this is not the fault of the Rohingya, but it is not our fault either. And no one thinks about us."
(This article has been republished in an arrangement with The Straits Times.)
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