Stephan Uttom, Cox’s Bazar and Rock Ronald Rozario, Dhaka, BangladeshUpdated: October 09, 2017 11:44 AM GMT
Rohingya refugees swarm a truck offering food items at Ukhiya, Cox's Bazar on Sept. 9. (ucanews.com photo)
Aid groups and environmentalists have warned against possible the outbreak of disease and environmental disasters as Bangladesh plans to build the world's largest refugee camp for tens of thousands of Rohingya who fled to the country following deadly violence in Myanmar's Rakhine State.
The clearing of forest and hills in Cox's Bazar, the country's most popular tourist destination, would be disastrous for the environment, said Danesh Mian, director of Institute of Forestry and Environmental Science at Chittagong University.
"Environment and biodiversity of Cox's Bazar have already taken blows with the chopping down of hundreds of trees and leveling of hills. We fear rare animals like the Asian elephant, only seen in Teknaf might get extinct. Cutting of hills for settlements will trigger landslides during the monsoon period," Mian told ucanews.com.
In order to save them from pollution, the refugees need to be moved out to an island or they must be provided with alternative options in the camps, said Mian who has extensively researched forests in Chittagong and Cox's Bazar.
"Refugees need to use firewood for cooking, and all the forests will be cleared if they don't have an alternative method. Offering them gas cylinders would be an option, but the question is if the government has the capability do it," he said.
Mofazzal Hossain Chowdhury, minister of Disaster Management and Relief, told reporters in Dhaka last week that the government would construct a camp spread over 1,214 hectares at Kutuplaong in Cox's Bazar for Rohingya refugees.
"Land would be allocated for the camp and all the Rohingya would be put there including those who entered Bangladesh in 1978," Chowdhury said during a press conference on Oct. 5.
More than 500,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in just a month following a military crackdown in Rakhine State in response to the Aug. 25 attacks on security checkpoints by Rohingya militants.
Already 300,000 Rohingya, mostly undocumented, live in Bangladesh, the remnants of earlier bouts of conflicts in Myanmar in 1978 and 1991-92. The Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for centuries but they are considered recent illegal immigrants from Bangladesh by the government and military and are denied citizenship and access to government services.
Aid agencies have warned that putting such large number of people would expose them to potential outbreak of epidemics, especially cholera.
In war-torn Yemen, a cholera outbreak has affected about 800,000 displaced people and left thousands dead, half of them children, according to United Nations Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The number could swell to million by end of this year, the World Health Organization warned.
"When you concentrate too many people into a very small area, particularly the people who are very vulnerable to diseases, it is dangerous," Robert Watkins, the United Nations resident coordinator in Bangladesh, told Agence France Press Oct. 8.
Watkins said Bangladesh should look for new sites for camps instead just a big one.
Abdul Hai Azad, assistant forest officer in Cox's Bazar, admitted there were environmental concerns.
"We have expressed our concerns over clearing of forests but we cannot stop it on humanitarian grounds as Rohingyas need a place to live," Azad told ucanews.com.
"We think the Rohingya will be repatriated to Myanmar or moved to an island soon, and then we will plant 2,500 trees in each hectare of land to recover from the loss," he added.
Rohingya unaware of risks
Speaking to ucanews.com, old and new refugees said they are optimistic about the government plan, visibly unaware of the risks.
"Rohingya are now living scattered and unsecured places. If would be good to live in one place in a good shelter, security, food and health services, and we hope the government will ensure all for us," said Harez Taiyub, 35, from an unregistered refugee living in Nayapara since 2000.
Taiyub said they are not aware about health risks as warned by the U.N.
"We live miserably in camps, and we hope things will get better in the new place," he said.
Sufia Begum, 34, a Rohingya mother of five from Nayapara unregistered camp echoed.
"We have been here for 17 years, but still our life is miserable — no food ration, water, sanitation and health facilities. If the government moves us out to a new camp, I hope the government will take all these responsibilities and our life will be better," Sufia told ucanews.com.
Abdul Motaleb, 67, head of a 12-member Rohingya family in Leda unregistered camp, said moving to a new camp would be financially beneficial.
"Here we need to pay 1,500 taka (US$19) rent per month, and we don't have food, medical aid. We are grateful to the Bangladesh government for sheltering us and welcome the new plan," he told ucanews.com.