The Wretched and the Earth

The environmental crisis unfolding in the world’s largest refugee camp

Rohingya sheltering from the wind and the sand in a makeshift tent in the Balukhali camp. Largescale deforestation has increased soil erosion and the risk of landslides.
31 December, 2018

IN AUGUST 2017, the Myanmar army began a new wave of targeted attacks, killing Rohingya and razing their villages. Zeid Raad Al Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, called it “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Nearly a million Rohingya began streaming across the border to the district of Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh. In doing so, they became part of one more cycle of political persecution followed by mass migration over the past four decades, despite years of hostility from the Bangladesh government and border security forces.

According to Gabriele Cecconi, an Italian photographer who has documented living conditions at the sprawling refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, this influx of migrants precipitated an environmental crisis. During his first two trips to Bangladesh, in March and August 2018, Cecconi explored seven camps, including the Kutupalong–Balukhali expansion site, the largest refugee camp in the world.

His work documents an aspect of mass migration that is often obscured by the disproportionate focus on the risky and arduous process of moving across national boundaries: the lives that refugees must lead once they have reached their intended destination. It looks at the impact of the refugee crisis on an already beleaguered ecosystem, and the effects the degradation has on the refugees themselves.

A makeshift refugee camp was established at Kutupalong in 1991, after over two hundred thousand Rohingya fled to Cox’s Bazar following a military crackdown in Myanmar called Operation Pyi Thaya—literally, “clean and beautiful nation”—which included forced labour, land confiscation, rape, torture and extrajudicial killings. Although most of the refugees were eventually repatriated after the Bangladesh government approached the United Nations, the camp has expanded over subsequent years, with newer camps mushrooming in the surrounding region to accommodate fresh waves of migrants. The expansion site now has a combined population of over six hundred thousand people. (The Inter Sector Coordination Group, which facilitates relief efforts in response to the refugee crisis, estimated in November that there were 906,835 Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar.)

A UN report released in September 2018 found that over half of the forest land in the Teknaf and Ukhia upazilas—sub-districts—of Cox’s Bazar had been cleared to make space for the camps. In the absence of agricultural land and regular employment, the Rohingya are dependent on forest produce for most of their daily household needs. The report estimated that the refugees collect nearly seven thousand tonnes of fuelwood every month, and that the average temporary shelter requires over sixty stalks of bamboo. This has exacerbated a steady depletion of forests in the region due to agriculture, logging, construction and the proliferation of plantations. According to the energy and environmental technical group of the ISCG, the entire forest land in Cox’s Bazar is likely to disappear this year.

Widespread deforestation has had a devastating impact, increasing soil erosion and the risk of landslides and flash floods during the monsoon. It has also degraded the region’s rich biodiversity. The Teknaf wildlife sanctuary, which housed over half of the country’s mammalian species during the 1990s, has steadily shrunk through encroachment, both by refugees and locals.

The sanctuary contains the Teknaf game reserve, created to preserve the Asiatic elephant, and the loss of their habitat has triggered several instances of elephants rampaging through the camps. Noor Hussain, a 30-year-old refugee Cecconi met, recalled a run-in with a scared and angry elephant, lost in the middle of the Kutupalong camp. “I started to run away,” he said, “but the elephant hit me.” He suffered injuries to his chest.

The use of fuelwood within very small structures has caused an epidemic of acute respiratory infections, which the Mérieux Foundation estimates is the leading cause of mortality among the Rohingya. Cecconi said the people most vulnerable to such infections are women, who do most of the cooking, as well as young children, who are with their mothers as they cook, and the elderly, who spend much of the day inside the shelters. The shortage of fuel also contributes to disease through the undercooking of food, according to the UN report.

With limited groundwater storage in the coastal region and few sources of fresh water, the severe population pressure in the camps means that residents often have to wait for days for drinking water. In Teknaf, Cecconi came across people drinking from puddles during long treks into the forest for firewood. This is another major cause of disease, as is the inability to manage the massive quantity of waste generated by the camps—the World Health Organisation reported in December 2017 that 88 percent of the water samples it had collected from households in the camps were contaminated by the bacteria E. coli from unmanaged faecal matter. In the village of Unchiprang, Cecconi said, “the contaminated waste water coming from the refugee camp has polluted the only canal, which was used by the local people to wash clothes, bathe and grow crops. The entire food chain has been spoiled in that village.”

In a particularly fragile region of a country that is one of the most vulnerable to climate change in the world, the environmental crisis unravelling in Cox’s Bazar is an acute example of the challenges posed by mass migration. “Today we have 68 million refugees in the world, the highest number ever, and many mass migrations have to deal with the same issues,” Cecconi said. “Talking about this is important to sensitise the international community to develop and adopt better strategies for the future, and to let people think about our deep relation with the places where we live.”