The Wretched and the Earth

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

31 December 2018
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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.

Gabriele Cecconi is a documentary photographer interested in social, political and environmental issues. He has had solo and collective exhibitions and his work has been published in magazines including L’Espresso, Internazionale and D La Repubblica.

Keywords: World Health Organisation refugees Rohingya Bangladesh Cox's Bazar Kutupalong Balukhali Myanmar United Nations Inter Sector Coordination Group Teknaf Ukhia Deforestation wildlife