Humanitarian agencies lobby against Rohingya 'mega camp' creation

A new road funded by UNHCR and built by the Bangladesh Army is constructed linking the Rohingya refugee camps and settlements at Mainnerghona, Balukhali and Kutupalong. Photo by: © UNHCR / Roger Arnold

BANGKOK — In Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar, construction has started on the roads and bridges for access to what will be the world’s largest refugee camp. At the same time, humanitarian actors on the ground have come together to advocate against the creation of one condensed “mega camp” for Rohingya refugees, instead calling for the identification of separate land to create several smaller camps.

Since late August, more than half a million Rohingya Muslims, a long-persecuted minority from Buddhist-dominated Myanmar, have fled across the border. The mass influx has strained space in existing camps in the Bangladesh-Myanmar border district, which already housed more than 300,000 Rohingya before the current exodus was triggered.

Recognizing the scale of the influx, the Bangladesh government earlier this month added another 1,000 acres to an already promised 2,000, creating a vast allotment of hilly, heavily forested land. There, Bangladesh announced it would build one of the world's biggest refugee camps to house more than 800,000 Rohingya people, many of whom are seeking asylum from brutal military attacks, village torchings, and gang rape.

More than 200,000 new arrivals have already set up shelter in the 3,000-acres dubbed the Kutupalong Extension Site, according to the Inter Sector Coordination Group, which is coordinating the work of aid agencies responding to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Cox’s Bazar.

The proposed camp will be the world's largest, dwarfing Uganda’s Bidi Bidi and Kenya’s Dadaab, which each house around 300,000 refugees, according to the International Organization for Migration. The plan — to combine the sprawling Kutupalong and Balukhali camps, as well as fold in surrounding makeshift settlements, and eventually relocate Rohingya from more than 23 informal camps along the border to the new zone — may seem a logical way to provide services to such a large population.

But a single camp of such a staggering size is problematic for a variety of reasons, experts tell Devex.

Sprawling or dispersed?

While the Bangladesh government is in favor of one large site, agencies are pushing a different solution. “At a strategic level, the ISCG with the support of all the sectors and all the agencies is advocating for multiple smaller sites,” said Megan Genat, IOM program coordinator for site development.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, IOM, and Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission are heading up the design and planning process for the extension. UNHCR also favors the establishment of smaller and less densely crowded settlements and the integration, where possible, of the refugee population within the host community, said UNHCR Regional Press Officer Vivian Tan in an emailed statement to Devex.

From the outset, a sprawling camp presents higher risks of the spread of epidemics such as cholera — which the World Health Organization has been battling to keep at bay with a mass vaccination campaign — as well as increased fire risks. Equitable distribution of services also becomes a concern the larger a camp grows.

“Having an extremely large site, it’s very hard for ensuring that everyone is getting the same access to services and protection, not to mention all the other risks, like fire and gender-based violence, that come with higher density living conditions,” said Wan Sophonpanich, sector coordinator for the Site Management and Site Development Sector.

Already, the Site Development Task Force is looking to prepare new sites as quickly as possible to facilitate decongestion of existing areas, particularly in makeshift settlements where the pull factor of established services is causing crowding.

“We’re looking at 5 to 10 square meters per person, so we want to radically decongest those areas, and part of that is in preparing the new site with good roads and drainage, but also with the equitable distribution of services,” Genat said.

The task force has carved the extension site into zones to better manage the area, but refugees are arriving and setting up their own shelters so quickly that it’s hard to stay on top of the latest data and alter the plans accordingly, Genat said: “Two weeks ago when we put together the zoning diagram, it was maybe a 60/40 split, 60 percent inhabited and 40 percent uninhabited area,” Genat said of the extension site. “But that uninhabited area is quickly becoming inhabited as self-settlement continues and we continue to have new arrivals.”

Rough terrain

The reasons behind advocacy for smaller, dispersed camps is also due in large part to terrain challenges in the allotted land of the Kutupalong extension where refugees are already settling.

Tents are concentrated in particular areas where families are at less risk of mudslides because “some of it is unsafe for dwelling,” Paolo Lubrano, Oxfam's humanitarian coordinator in Bangladesh, told Devex of the land. “There are some settlements in unsafe areas because space is running short. People are establishing settlements wherever they can, wherever they can find space.”

Part of the work being implemented by site management will include upgrades and enhancements of the existing site to reduce the risk of flash flooding and landslides, according to Genat.

Though no official projection of the amount of usable land in the extension site has been released, it’s likely that less than 50 percent of the allotted land is suitable for dwellings — a figure Devex confirmed with UNOCHA Asia Pacific Regional Information Officer Helen Mould, speaking on behalf of ISCG.

“Initially that area was allocated for nearly 400,000 refugees,” Oxfam’s Lubrano said of the extension site. “In all likelihood, it will host half of them.”

Developing unusable land into land suitable for dwelling will depend on the strategy decided for earthworks. The Site Development Task Force is already discussing what the options are in terms of gentler approaches such as carving terraces into hillsides versus full land leveling and clearing, and “there are challenges with both options in terms of time and cost and scope of the works,” Genat said.

In the meantime, the task force has been advocating against enlarging the current site any further and instead supporting the Bangladesh government in its consideration of alternative land options.  

“We all agree that more land is needed, and it’s needed urgently,” said Sophonpanich, adding that there is an “effort ongoing to identify more land.”

Lubrano thinks creating separate camps around the area of Kutupalong but not strictly concentrated in the Kutupalong Extension Site is likely the answer, and it “seems to be the direction of conversation … it’s going to take some time and negotiation,” he said. “There are potentially other areas that could be more suitable for dwelling, and also safer.”

Executing either camp plan will require additional funding, considering that to date, available funding and uncommitted pledges amount to roughly $100 million of the $434 million required by the U.N. Joint Response Plan to assist 1.2 million people — including new refugees, previous refugees, and host communities.

OCHA, IOM, and UNHCR are set to host a ministerial-level pledging conference in Geneva on Monday, October 23, co-hosted by the European Union and Kuwait.

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.