Stephan Uttom and Rock Ronald Rozario, Dhaka
Updated: August 12, 2019 04:36 AM GMT
A Rohingya refugee girl carries firewood to Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar on Sept. 13, 2017. The massive influx of Rohingya has had huge socioeconomic effects on host communities, a recent study found. (Photo by Piyas Biswas/ucanews.com)
Until late 2017, Abdus Shukkur eked out a living by working as a day laborer in the Palongkhali area of Cox’s Bazar district in southeast Bangladesh.
The 40-year-old Muslim father of two used to make about 450-500 taka (US$5-6) daily and maintained his four-member family with relative ease.
Things changed drastically for Shukkur in August 2017 when hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine State of neighboring Myanmar started to cross the border into Bangladesh through various crossing points in Cox’s Bazar.
The Rohingya had fled a deadly crackdown by Myanmar’s military and extremist Buddhists in response to Rohingya militant attacks on security forces.
The brutal atrocities, dubbed “ethnic cleansing” by the United Nations, sparked one of the largest refugee exoduses in Asia since the end of the Vietnam War.
The initially reluctant Bangladesh government allowed Rohingya refugees to enter its territory, while most people in the Muslim-majority country sympathized with the Rohingya’s plight.
More than two dozen camps in Cox’s Bazar are sheltering to up to one million Rohingya, who rely on aid from national and international charities for survival.
Two years on, the influx of Rohingya has taken its toll on the host community and the environment in Cox’s Bazar.
A few weeks after the Rohingya influx, Shukkur became jobless, so he had to borrow money from neighbors to feed his family.
At the end of 2017, he moved to neighboring Chittagong district, about 150 kilometers from his home, and found a job in a private construction company. He earns 250-300 taka daily and finds it hard to make ends meet.
“Since the arrival of the Rohingya, jobs like day laboring and fishing have dropped, so many are struggling to earn a living because Rohingya laborers agree to work for lower pay. The price of daily essentials has increased, worsening the life of local communities,” Shukkur told ucanews.com.
Even if the Rohingya don’t work, they can get three meals a day thanks to aid, but many locals struggle to eat properly, he said.
“Unless the Rohingya are repatriated, many people like me will be forced to leave their homes for survival,” Shukkur added.
A Rohingya refugee at his grocery store near Kutupalong camp of Cox’s Bazar on Sept. 10, 2017. The Rohingya influx has rendered many local people unemployed and poor. (Photo by Piyas Biswas/ucanews.com)
Apart from socioeconomic adversities relating to the Rohingya influx, many locals have become psychologically distressed, according to Sultan Ahmed, a member of a union council, a local government unit in Ukhiya, the area in Cox’s Bazar with most refugee camps.
“At first local people were sympathetic toward the Rohingya because of their plight, but when they saw forests gradually disappear, agricultural land damaged, jobs gone and costs of living increased significantly, they started to lose patience,” Ahmed, 40, a Muslim father of three, told ucanews.com.
Ahmed claimed that Rohingya refugees set up shelters on his agricultural land, others dug soil from there to construct shelters and some stole fish from his pond.
“We offered shelter to the Rohingya on humanitarian grounds, but now we are under pressure along with the total environment,” he added.
The concerns of Shukkur and Ahmed are typical of a growing trend in Cox’s Bazar, according to a recent joint assessment report by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh and Cox’s Bazar district administration.
Released on July 25 and titled “Impacts of the Rohingya Refugee Influx on Host Communities,” the report explores the socioeconomic effect of the Rohingya influx and covers prices, wages and poverty.
The report also looks into the impact on the environment, livelihoods, public services, public goods delivery, social safety nets and social cohesion.
Prices of daily essentials have increased by about 50 percent, wages of day laborers have halved, about 5,500 acres of forests have disappeared, 1,500 acres of wildlife habitat have been destroyed, about 2,500 local people have fallen below the poverty line and about 75,000 people in host communities have become more vulnerable to poverty, the report found.
While demand for day laborers has dropped due to the availability of cheap Rohingya laborers, about 35,000 fishermen and their families are facing hard times after the government banned fishing on the Naf River along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, the report stated.
“The massive influx of refugees immediately emerged as a severe humanitarian crisis, followed by a long-term development need for the host community in Cox’s Bazar. This potentially offers an opportunity to build back better,” Sudipto Mukerjee, resident representative of UNDP Bangladesh, said at the report’s launch.
A view of the extended Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar on Sept. 27, 2017. The massive influx of Rohingya refugees has had a drastic impact on the environment. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Based on the report, Bangladesh’s government needs to collaborate better with aid agencies to help host communities cope with the impacts of the Rohingya influx, said Muhammad Nur Nabi, an associate professor of economics at Chittagong University.
“Before the Rohingya influx, development work in Cox’s Bazar included local people, but it has been mostly diverted to refugees by now. We cannot fully recover from environmental damage, but at least we must try to help affected local people survive like the Rohingya by offering aid including food and employment,” Nur Nabi told ucanews.com.
Aid agencies should increase activities among host communities to dissipate growing anti-Rohingya sentiment, said James Gomes, regional director of Catholic charity Caritas Chittagong, which operates among refugees and host communities in Cox’s Bazar.
“There are aid groups targeting development of host communities, although on a small scale. It can be increased further because donors are also aware of the suffering of hosts and are ready to support them,” Gomes told ucanews.com.
Muhammad Nikaruzzaman, chief government officer in Ukhiya, said authorities have taken action to reduce the suffering of locals in recent years.
“Last year we started sending 20 kilograms of food [rice] aid to 10,000 affected local families every month, and the number increased to 24,000 families this year. We have also instructed aid agencies to keep a budget for host communities in various activities they undertake. Infrastructure development as well as livelihood and vocational skills training are being offered to support host communities,” Nikaruzzaman told ucanews.com.
Rohingya refugees are sad that they have caused distress to local people, said Yassin Abdumonab, 26, a Rohingya from Kutupalong refugee camp.
“The report is true and we realize the host communities are suffering in their everyday lives for us, but we can do nothing about it. We are victims of the situation and have been forced into it. We hope one day will go back home, and we will remember the generosity of Bangladeshi people as long as the Rohingya live,” Abdumonab told ucanews.com.