Aid workers race to batten down Rohingya refugee camp with no sign of crisis ending

A Rohingya Muslim woman cries as she holds her daughter after they were detained by Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers while crossing the India-Bangladesh border from Bangladesh, at Raimura village on the outskirts of Agartala, January 22, 2019. (Jayanta Dey/Reuters)
Updated 04 February 2019

Aid workers race to batten down Rohingya refugee camp with no sign of crisis ending

  • Over 18 months the Bangladesh government, with thousands of staff from about 145 non-government organizations (NGOs) and aid agencies, have brought order to the chaos
  • Aid workers recalled how the early months of the crisis were focused on life-saving work, such as building shelters and latrines, food supplies, and dealing with health emergencies

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh: In hotels and restaurants near the beach at Cox’s Bazar in southeast Bangladesh, international and local aid workers sent to help the Rohingya in the world’s largest refugee settlement talk nervously of the major challenge ahead — the weather.
Cox’s Bazar was mainly known as Bangladesh’s top local tourism spot, famed for the world’s longest natural sea beach, until the 2017 arrival of more than 730,000 Rohingya fleeing persecution in Myanmar in a human exodus of unprecedented scale.
Joining thousands of Rohingya Muslims already in Cox’s Bazar, they cleared forests and built shelters from mud and bamboo to create a sprawling mass of camps that now house more than 900,000 people, of which 80 percent are women and children.
Over 18 months the Bangladesh government, with thousands of staff from about 145 non-government organizations (NGOs) and aid agencies, have brought order to the chaos, building more stable shelters, roads, sanitation and setting up community projects.
But while life in the settlement has started to stabilize, aid workers said they were rushing to secure the camps for the longer term with no sign of the crisis ending and one factor hanging over them — the monsoon in May then cyclone season.
“This is not an easy place to work because we are constantly worrying about things over which we have no control,” said Nayana Bose, spokeswoman for the Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) that coordinates the humanitarian agencies’ work.
“It’s challenging in terms of terrain, weather, and population,” she said, adding this made it harder than other refugee crises and Bangladesh’s biggest ever humanitarian task.
Aid workers recalled how the early months of the crisis were focused on life-saving work, such as building shelters and latrines, food supplies, and dealing with health emergencies.
They worked around the clock in the camps located about 40 km (25 miles) south of Cox’s Bazar – a 1.5 hour drive that can take much longer depending on traffic on the pot-holed roads where aid agencies’ four-wheel drives vie with auto rickshaws.
Fly in, fly out
Most international staff came for three month stints but as time went on were replaced by staff on six month and one year contracts, working eight week shifts before flying out for one week of rest and recreation and to visit their families.
Leisure activities are limited in Cox’s Bazar, with alcohol in Muslim Bangladesh only available at some international hotels, so some aid staff set up yoga classes and book clubs.
Women must be dressed conservatively so swimming is not an option, although some aid workers value beach walks, and international workers are told not to leave hotels after 10 pm.
Firas Al-Khateeb, a spokesman for the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR, said he had worked with refugees in five other countries but the Rohingya crisis was more challenging.
First there was the sheer numbers involved, then language problems as most Rohingya are illiterate, complicating awareness campaigns about risks in the camps, and also the fact the Rohingya are not recognized by Myanmar and have nowhere to go.
Chances of the crisis ending soon are remote. Bangladesh’s government has vowed not to repatriate anyone unwillingly, garnering global praise for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who just won a third term despite reports of poll irregularities.
UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, said on Jan. 25 it was clear the Rohingya cannot return “in the near future” with the situation unchanged and Myanmar still denying all accusations of persecution.
“The Rohingya are stateless and had been suffering back home. Some talk about the freedom they have here,” said Al-Khateeb, whose organization is frequently quoted saying the average length of stay in a refugee camp is around 15-20 years.
Getting ready
But he added that the weather was a major problem, with efforts now underway to make the camps as secure as possible in case of a severe monsoon or cyclone season. Last year the Cox’s Bazar area was not badly hit.
Anjum Nahed Chowdhury, a project manager with Christian Aid working on disaster risk reduction with BRAC, Bangladesh’s largest NGO, is focused on strengthening bamboo for shelters, digging ditches, landslide protection, and building brick roads.
“We must be ready for the monsoon season and we are much better prepared this year. If the cyclones had been bad last year it would have been a disaster,” she said.
While life in the camps is becoming normalized, the Rohingya are not allowed to formally work as this could impact local jobs, but they can earn about $5 a day on NGO projects in camps.
With this they can trade with each other at stalls that line the main roads winding through the camps that sell food, plastic toys and clothes as stray dogs and cows wander past.
Gemma Snowdon, a spokeswoman for the World Food Programme, said food in the camps was also changing to a longer-term plan.
At first they handed out rice, lentils and oil but now they are supplying people with cards with monthly amounts based on family size with which they can buy fresh food, dried fish and eggs from stores set up by local retailers in the camps.
Another program, run by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), International Organization for Migrants (IOM) and WFP, is supplying all households with stoves and a monthly canister of LPG to reduce pollution and deforestation.
The loss of forest has been a key source of tension with some local people, who are now outnumbered two to one by the Rohingya, and lost some traditional income from the forest.
While other locals, like Theotonius Gomes who runs the Mag Darin restaurant, have welcomed the influx of aid workers which has boosted businesses and prompted the government to start work on an international airport terminal and extended runway.
But all the aid work comes at a cost.
Last year UN agencies and NGOs launched a $950.8 million appeal to provide essential humanitarian assistance, including to nearly 400,000 Bangladeshis in nearby communities, some of whom are as poor as the Rohingya, in a bid to diffuse tensions.
A new funding plan will be launched later this month, with initial drafts of the proposal, seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, showing the target will be about $920 million.
Aid groups are well aware raising funds could get harder as the crisis rolls on and new emergencies hit the headlines.
“But this emergency is not over yet. Still the Rohingyas need our help and support,” said Al-Khateeb.


Kashmir protesters defy restrictions, clash with security forces

Updated 23 August 2019

Kashmir protesters defy restrictions, clash with security forces

  • Paramilitary police tried to enter Soura, which has emerged as a center of the protests, as hundreds demonstrated against Narendra Modi’s decision to withdraw autonomy
  • Posters appeared overnight in Srinagar, the Muslim-majority region’s main city, calling for a march to the office of the UN Military Observer Group for India and Pakistan

SRINAGAR, India: Security forces used tear gas against stone-throwing local residents in Indian Kashmir’s main city of Srinagar on Friday, after a third straight week of protests in the restive Soura district despite the imposition of tight restrictions.
Paramilitary police tried to enter Soura, which has emerged as a center of the protests, as hundreds of locals staged a protest march against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to withdraw autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir on Aug. 5.
Posters appeared overnight this week in Srinagar, the Muslim-majority region’s main city, calling for a march to the office of the UN Military Observer Group for India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP), to protest against India’s decision.
This was the first such call by separatists seeking Kashmir’s secession from India. India’s move was accompanied by travel and communication restrictions in Kashmir that are still largely in place, although some landlines were restored last week.
The UNMOGIP was set up in 1949 after the first war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, a Himalayan region both countries claim in full but rule in part. The group monitors cease-fire violations along the border between the countries.
In a narrow lane of Soura, blocked like many others with rocks and sheets of metal, residents hurled stones at the paramilitary police to stop them moving into an area around the local mosque, Jinab Sahib, which had earlier been packed for Friday prayers.
The police responded with several rounds of tear gas and chili grenades but were beaten back by dozens of stone-pelting men. Some men suffered pellet injuries.
The locals said the security forces had been repeatedly trying to move into Soura, often using tear gas and pellets.
“We are neither safe at home, nor outside,” said Rouf, who declined to give his full name. He had rubbed salt into his face to counteract the effects of tear gas.
The afternoon had begun peacefully, with men and women streaming into Jinab Sahib for afternoon prayers. A cleric then raised a call for “Azadi” – Urdu for freedom – several times, and declared Kashmir’s allegiance to neighboring Pakistan.
“Long live Pakistan,” the cleric said, as worshippers roared back in approval.
US President Donald Trump plans to discuss Kashmir when he meets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of a G7 meeting in France this weekend, a senior US administration official said on Thursday.
Trump, who has offered to mediate between India and Pakistan, will press Modi on how he plans to calm regional tensions after the withdrawal of Kashmir’s autonomy, and stress the need for dialogue, the official said.
Some Indian media reports on Friday said “terrorists” were trying to enter India from Afghanistan, citing unnamed government officials.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan responded on Twitter on Friday that such claims were being made to “divert attention” away from what he called human rights violations in Kashmir.
“The Indian leadership will in all probability attempt a false flag operation to divert attention,” Khan said.
Khan’s comments came a day after United Nations experts called on the Indian government to “end the crackdown on freedom of expression, access to information and peaceful protests” in Kashmir, saying it would increase regional tensions.
“The blackout is a form of collective punishment of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, without even a pretext of a precipitating offense,” they said in a statement.
At least 152 people have been hurt by teargas and pellets since security forces launched their crackdown, data from the Himalayan region’s two main hospitals shows.
Large swathes of Srinagar remain deserted with shops shut except for some provision stores with shutters half-down. Police vans patrolled some areas announcing a curfew and asking people to stay indoors.
On the Dal Lake, long rows of houseboats, normally packed with tourists at this time of year, floated closed and empty, as police patrolled its mirror-calm waters in boats.