Im­pov­er­ished, crowded Bangladesh can’t han­dle Ro­hingya refugee flood

New­com­ers bring un­wel­come changes to scenic tourist spot

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - NEWS - Man­dakini Gahlot

COX’S BAZAR, BANGLADESH This re­sort town has one of the long­est beaches in the world and is one of the big­gest tourist at­trac­tions in this des­per­ately poor coun­try. Yet even this vi­tal source of rev­enue is at risk.

For­eign and do­mes­tic va­ca­tion­ers are avoid­ing the area be­cause more than 500,000 refugees flee­ing per­se­cu­tion in neigh­bor­ing Myan­mar have set up tem­po­rary camp here.

“It was all just beau­ti­ful beaches and long stretches of gor­geous forests with wild ele­phants,” re­called lo­cal na­tive Ab­dul­lah Nayan, 31, a videog­ra­pher.

To­day, “there’s an uptick in the kind of crimes that this area was un­fa­mil­iar with be­fore — theft, vi­o­lent at­tacks, even mur­ders,” Nayan said.

The prob­lem is blamed on Ro­hingya refugees who have faced at­tacks by the Myan­mar mil­i­tary. The Ro­hingya, a Mus­lim mi­nor­ity, are de­nied cit­i­zen­ship in Myan­mar, a mostly Bud­dhist coun­try for­merly known as Burma.

The United Na­tions has ac­cused Myan­mar sol­diers of eth­nic cleans­ing in the north­west state of Rakhine, burn­ing Ro­hingya vil­lages and killing those who can’t es­cape. Myan­mar’s govern­ment said it was re­tal­i­at­ing for un­pro­voked at­tacks on sol­diers by Ro­hingya sep­a­ratists.

The Bangladeshi dis­trict of Ukhia, where many flee­ing Ro­hingya have set­tled, had a pop­u­la­tion of only 200,000 in 2015. Now there are more than two refugees for ev­ery na­tive res­i­dent.

“The lo­cals have be­come a mi­nor­ity overnight. Of course they are scared,” said Mo­ham­mad Ja­hedul Chowd­hury, a project co­or­di­na­tor with the Community De­vel­op­ment Cen­ter, a govern­ment or­ga­ni­za­tion that helps the Ro­hingya get aid. “As much as they want to help the Ro­hingya — and many of them are — they also worry about how this will trans­form their city and their so­ci­ety.”

The new­com­ers have cut down trees for fuel and built makeshift shel­ters on the gen­tle slopes of the hills along the Bay of Ben­gal. Most live in squalid tent cities.

“There’s also a sharp rise in prices of food as un­scrupu­lous traders try to cash in on the Ro­hingya cri­sis. Let’s not for­get that the nat­u­ral beauty of this area is com­pletely said.

At the Ku­ta­palang camp, about 350 refugees are stay­ing in a school that has only two toi­lets. The World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion has warned of cholera out­breaks.

“My 7-year-old grand­son has di­ar­rhea,” said Farida Kha­tum, 68. “The doc­tor said he needs to be care­ful about hy­giene, but how can we do that? He doesn’t even have a toi­let to use. All the chil­dren just go be­hind the huts.”

Cox’s Bazar nor­mally at­tracts nearly 2 mil­lion tourists be­tween Oc­to­ber and April. To­day, resorts are filled with aid work­ers, govern­ment of­fi­cials and oth­ers.

“Dur­ing the tourist sea­son, I can earn as much $50 to $75 in a day, but if the tourists stop com­ing, I will have to do some­thing else, maybe be­come a fish­er­man like my fa­ther,” said Ja­hangir Alam, who earns a liv­ing as a driver.

Bangladesh, al­ready over­pop­u­lated at 160 mil­lion peo­ple, is one of the world’s poor­est coun­tries. But last year, the econ­omy clocked growth of more than 7%, the fastest ex­pan­sion in more than 30 years. It was the sixth con­sec­u­tive year of eco­nomic growth of more than 6%.

“Host­ing a huge num­ber of Myan­mar na­tion­als is a big bur­den for Bangladesh,” said Bangladeshi Prime Min­is­ter Sheikh Hasina, adding that the refugees even­tu­ally have to go else­where. “We’ve given shel­ter to them only on a hu­man­i­tar­ian ba­sis.”

Bangladesh has long viewed Ro­hingya refugees as an in­ter­nal se­cu­rity threat and in the past pro­posed mov­ing them to a re­mote, un­in­hab­ited is­land prone to hur­ri­canes and cy­clones, a pro­posal still on the ta­ble. For the mo­ment, the govern­ment says it is build­ing a refugee city over 2,000 acres in Cox’s Bazar.

The coun­try has im­posed se­vere re­stric­tions on the refugees, in­clud­ing for­bid­ding them from trav­el­ing freely in Bangladesh.

“If they are kept from min­gling with the rest of the pop­u­la­tion, it is good be­cause then maybe the govern­ment can send them back to Myan­mar some­day or to any other coun­try that will help,” Choud­hury said.

Many refugees re­sent the re­stric­tions but said they are still thank­ful to be in Bangladesh.

“At least we are not be­ing at­tacked here, so we can get on with the busi­ness of liv­ing,” said Nobi Hasan, 62. “I have some rel­a­tives who came to Bangladesh in the 1980s, and my nephew stud­ies in a univer­sity in Dhaka,” he said. “But I can­not go to see them be­cause we are not al­lowed to leave from the camp area.” de­stroyed,” Nayan

PAULA BRONSTEIN, GETTY IMAGES

Rahima Begum, 25, holds her daugh­ter Taslima, 4, in a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

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