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
0

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.


Russia’s Port of Vladivostok prepares to host Kim Jong Un

Updated 19 April 2019
0

Russia’s Port of Vladivostok prepares to host Kim Jong Un

  • Russian media were quick to report preparations were underway for the summit to take place in Vladivostok
  • Proximity is no doubt important for Kim, who is rumored to travel aboard his armored train

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is expected in Russia’s far-eastern port Vladivostok in the coming days, according to reports that have prompted excitement and concern among local residents.
After weeks of speculation, the Kremlin announced that Kim will visit Russia to hold his first talks with President Vladimir Putin in late April. It gave no details on a date or place, citing “security reasons.”
Russian media were quick to report preparations were underway for the summit to take place in Vladivostok, home to Moscow’s Pacific Fleet.
The port lies only about 130 kilometers (80 miles) from Russia’s short border with North Korea. This proximity is no doubt important for Kim, who is rumored to travel aboard his armored train.
The 35-year-old will be following in the footsteps of his father Kim Jong Il, who met the newly elected Putin in Vladivostok in 2002.
The far eastern city rarely sees major international events, and some locals are happy for the city to be in the spotlight.
“Any visit is good, whether it’s an enemy or a friend,” said Danil, a student at Vladivostok’s Far Eastern Federal University, billed by the media as a possible venue for the summit.
He welcomed the talks, saying “you can only make decisions through dialogue and communication.”
Nadezhda, a native of the city, said it will be a global event and “will be a boost for development in our city.”
Authorities this week were busy cleaning garbage near railways leading to the city, Russian media reported.
“The depressing view from the train window does not give a positive impression to guests of Vladivostok arriving by train,” an official from the local branch of Russian Railways told the Interfax news agency.
Nadezhda said she was “absolutely not afraid of (North Korea’s) nuclear program” and would like to see the country.
North Korea said this week it was testing nuclear weapons after a round of talks with the US ended in failure.
But Anna Marinina was less enthusiastic about the summit, and said that if Pyongyang did use its weapons, Vladivostok would be in the firing line.
“The people that panic the most about North Korea are safe on the other side of the ocean,” she said.
“If something were to happen, it would fall on us.”
Putin has long said he was ready to meet with Kim and is preparing to play a bigger role in nuclear negotiations with Moscow’s Cold War-era ally.
The last meeting between Russian and North Korean heads of state was in 2011, when Kim’s father traveled by train to Siberia, where he took a boat ride on Lake Baikal and held tightly guarded talks with then president Dmitry Medvedev.
There is a chance however that fresh talks will not take place at all, as Kim pulled out of 2015 celebrations in Moscow for the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II at the last minute.