Rohingya Refugee Crisis: A Representation of Nature’s Sufferings

By Sumaia Binte Islam

Today the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar region are symbols of Bangladesh’s deterrent environmental conditions. On one hand, human beings are being deprived of their basic human rights while nature is also showing symptoms of its dire conditions.  

On July 27, 2021 Devastating floods and landslides struck the refugee camps as a result of nonstop torrential rain. On August 19, 2017, n elephant entered the Kutupalong Refugee Camp, wrecked shelters, and caused mayhem. “This location belongs to elephants,” clarified team leader and 52-year-old volunteer Abdurozok of the UNHCR Elephant Response Team. Before, there were a lot of elephants. Elephant sightings have decreased this year compared to last, when they were seen once a month. Throughout the winter, we, the volunteers, only encountered them twice. There were forests nearby when we first arrived, but they are no longer there. According to a UNDP assessment, the usage of forest resources may also increase social friction between the host groups and the Rohingyas, in addition to endangering biodiversity.

Every day, this deterioration is getting worse and worse. My visit to Cox’s Bazar last winter was saddened by seeing the environment degradation of the region. The overall ecological damage caused by this refugee crisis will cost roughly USD 285 million as of early October 2020, according to a report by Bangladesh’s Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change. The loss of biodiversity was responsible for about 60% of this harm. Other losses include uprooting and the destruction of both native and cultivated trees. According to research, 2,500 hectares of forest land are occupied by refugee communities, and another 750 hectares of forest were lost as a result of the refugees’ firewood collection. The impact of Rohingya influx on the environment of Cox’s Bazar region is a burning question of our time. 

Considering such a distressing situation, both local and international actors have started taking the much-needed actions. In 2019, in order to lessen the significant pressure that fuelwood collection was putting on Cox’s Bazar’s remaining forests, the government and UN organisations started providing LPG (liquid petroleum gas). According to a UNHCR-IUCN-East West University report published at the end of 2019, refugee families were using 80% less firewood thanks to the availability of LPG. Since then, LPG distribution has become one of the UN agencies’ key initiatives for 2020. Reports indicate that this has greatly lessened the burden on the nearby forests’ biodiversity. Therefore, local and international actors have stepped forward to prevent the collision of humans and nature. A great example of the actions taken is the “JRP (Joint Response Plan) 2022”, which includes measures to preserve the environment and biodiversity.  

Why we need long term plans like JRP 2022

The first time Rohigya came to Bangladesh was in 1977, after Operation Dragon King. Almost 200,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh, and as always, Bangladesh, considering the humanitarian cause, opened refugee camps and gave shelter to the Rohingya refugees. However, by 1979, most of the Rohingya were repatriated to their homeland. On the other hand, when another mass exodus occurred in 2017, the repatriation process failed, and over 943,000 Rohingyas are still living in overcrowded camps in Ukhiya and Teknaf Upazilas.

Bangladesh Myanmar Border tensions are creating scepticism regarding safe repatriation. (Munir Uz Zaman / AFP / Getty)

Current political instability in Myanmar is making Rohingyas sceptical of their safe repatriation. Already two repatriation negations with Myanmar have failed. On top of that mortar shells were fired on September 16, 2022 and an 18-year-old Rohingya boy was killed, with five others injured. Shelling of bullets from the Burmese side has impacted both Bangladesh-Myanmar bilateral relations and the Rohingya repatriation efforts. The current border tensions are creating more scepticism regarding the scope of a peaceful repatriation in near future. Thus, it is safe to say that these crowded refugee camps are going to be part of Cox’s Bazar in the coming years as well.  

JRP 2022

It is Bangladesh and UN’s collaborative effort to help the FDMN’s. In its 2022 plan, JRP explicitly states that it wants to lessen the negative environmental effects of the refugee crisis in Myanmar. The strategy includes five goals, one of which is to promote cleaner and renewable energy. Thus, encouraging the adoption of sustainable solid-waste management in the Cox’s Bazar region. It also aims to undertake plantation and watershed management to facilitate climate-resilient water management systems. Such a water management system will support climate-smart livelihoods in agricultural and non-agricultural sectors in the region. One of the four pillars of the “Skills Development/Livelihoods/Environment” sector is ecosystem conservation. The “Island Jail in the Middle of the Sea,” Bhasan Char, is also expected to have its ecosystems monitored by JRP 2022, and it will undergo any necessary rehabilitation work. The “Nature-based Solutions,” or NbS, are essentially what these action plans are. Our natural or modified ecosystems (such as forests, hills, rivers, harbors, even towns and cities) can be protected, restored, created, or sustainably managed to address a variety of issues, including climate change, natural disasters, food scarcity, and water insecurity. A practice that was being suggested by experts but NbS interventions were being practiced without uttering the term NbS before JRP 2022.

Challenges of Implication

These aims can’t be achieved without the cooperation of the host communities. In order to accomplish these goals, JRP will collaborate with the host communities to restore the ecosystem and environment that have been damaged. However, that will be difficult. Hosting a refugee community is taking its toll on us, and the hospitality of Bangladeshi locals has turned into resistance now. It is important that these initiatives be presented to them as a path to their own betterment as well. 

Another drawback is the vagueness of JRP objectives. Dr. Haseeb Md. Irfanullah, an independent consultant working on environment, climate change, and research systems, explains, it is not quite clear how much thought was put into the use of the words “combat the effects of climate change” in the fifth strategic objective of  the JRP 2022. It does not explain how to combat these effects. Also, our proper understanding of Nbs is crucial. We need to be aware of the challenges of that particular calamity while implementing NbS interventions, what opportunities people are going to lose now, and what benefits they will gain in the long run. Everyone who might be impacted by that NbS needs to be aware of it and willing to find a balance. The usual method of time-bound development projects can be detrimental rather than beneficial because, in this scenario as Nbs is a long-term action. In order for the NbS intervention to assist us effectively, sustainably, and guarantee net biodiversity benefits, we must have a management system in place that allows us to react to any changes that may arise in the surrounding environment.

A long way Forward

In recent years, Bangladesh has suffered frequent droughts, floods, heavy monsoons, and temperature rises due to climate change. In 2022, the north-eastern part of Bangladesh faced one of the worst floods of all time. The refugee camps are no exception to those incidents. However, it can’t be denied that the environmental damages caused by the Rohingya crisis are one of the main reasons behind the calamities faced in those areas. The cry of nature has forced the government and international actors to take the necessary steps to preserve the forest lands and biodiversity. Action plans like JRP 2022 were supposed to be adapted much earlier. Even today, after the declaration of efforts to preserve the environment and biodiversity, the implications are lacking. The local actors working on the fields are deprived of skilled staff members to implement the action plans. To protect the nature of our country and lessen the sufferings of the Displaced Myanmar Nationals and local community, the government needs to confirm the implications of the JRP 2022 objectives and Nature- based Solutions. The biggest responsibility here is upon the hosting community. It is crucial that they realize these action plans will benefit them as much as the Rohingya community. They need to step forward and cooperate with the government to preserve the environment and biodiversity of their motherland.      

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