Refugees and Racial Minorities

Rethinking Refugee Camps: Balancing the Needs of Refugees and the Environment

By Ariyana Khan

Edited by Arham Ahmed


I was at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia, Cox’s Bazar. The place looked different from the last time I visited it which was nearly ten years ago.  As far as my vision stretched, my eyes only met layers and layers of refugee camps and oodles of people who were dotted and clustered all over the place.  A trip down memory lane reminded me of the mighty hills and endless assemblies of trees present there once. The hills that once resembled cones were now frustums, above them and at their edges rested refugee camps that sheltered, in precarious conditions, people who had to run for their lives. As I trotted along the aisles of refugee camps and observed the heart-wrenching sights of indescribable anguish and suffering, I could not help but think of the array of natural beauty that this place hosted once upon a time.  I was not blind to the sufferings of those innocent Rohingya people; however, I could not stand how the natural beauty of one of my country’s greatest assets was being obliterated owing to this humanitarian crisis.

The mass exodus of Rohingya Muslims ensued after Myanmar security forces responded to Rohingya militants’ attacks on August 25 and launched a brutal crackdown that the UN has denounced as a ‘textbook case of ethnic cleansing’. More than half a million Rohingya refugees have entered Bangladesh since and as more and more refugees arrive every day, the need for more land to accommodate them increases. And this land is supplied by clearing forests and engraving hills. According to officials, 4,500 acres of land were leveled in Ukhia in just one month and they have also announced that roughly 1000 acres of forest will be leveled to make room for Rohingya refugees flowing into Bangladesh. When the number of refugees stood at 400 000, 2 000 acres of forest land had been allocated already.  A further 2000 acres of land near Kutupalong area in Ukhiya have been ordered to be used to built an additional 14 000 refugee shelters

A parliamentary standing committee on forest and environment revealed a report that the Rohingya refuges that have entered the country from Myanmar damaged forest areas in Cox’s Bazar area worth Tk.151 crore. Not only are trees felled to make makeshift camps, millions of tons of woods are being used by the Rohingya refugees for their cooking purpose daily. Hasan Mahmud, chief of the Jatiya Sangsad said that the entire environment in Cox’s Bazar area has been damaged severely due to the influx of Rohingyas since August 25.  The roadside beauty of Teknaf has already been pushed to the verge of destruction. Coupled with this, the internal and external tourism flow at the Cox’s Bazar sea beach will be destroyed if the loss is not minimized in the days to come. It should be noted that Bangladesh is among the countries with least forest area, with only 11.2% forest area of the total area of the country. If such clearing of forests continue, severe consequences will await us in the long-term as it is an irreparable loss to the environment and to the flora and fauna of the area.

It is causing an imbalance in the entire ecosystem of the area. Animal experts have stated that the temporary refugee camps have blocked natural migratory routes for around 50 wild Asian elephants and this could be fatal for them during the winter months if the situation remains unchanged. Recently, two refugees were trampled to death by wild elephants and experts warn that more are to follow. Therefore, the consequences are already surfacing. The widespread cutting of hill tracts and forest resources is inciting the degradation of land and water body in the refugee settlement area. Bangladesh is home to the world’s longest sea beach and letting this asset of our country to become a scapegoat because of ignorant fools who know nothing about humanity and cannot see anything beyond the hatred fostered in their hearts, is a nightmare.

Call me insensitive to think about the environment at a moment of such an urgent humanitarian crisis, but dealing with the situation with a myopic approach is not the solution. Bilateral negotiations with Myanmar for the safe return of Rohingyas to their homeland are going on, but their return to Myanmar is not the solution because the damage has already been done. Our decision makers need to come up with feasible and sustainable solutions that link the environment with refugee management. A committee should be formed dedicated to study the environmental impact that would look into how to reduce the damage and that will come up with more feasible and useful solutions after a survey of the ground reality. Energy friendly cooking system such as kerosene stoves could be provided at the Rohingya camps so that they do not destroy trees to obtain wood for burning. We have received sufficient foreign aid to afford such a system.  Alternatively, food items that do not require to be cooked could be provided to them. Moreover, the ‘cut one tree, plant two seeds’ policy could be applied here. This could be started immediately after the process of their return begins. Then, there again is the problem of waste management.  A proper waste management system needs to be put in place at the refugee camps to ensure waste materials are being disposed of properly. Since it is not possible for the officials at the refugee camps to monitor this alone, people among the refugees could be given the responsibility to monitor waste disposal. In return, they could be given extra relief packs for fulfilling their responsibility.




About the Author

Ariyana Khan
Journalist of the Global Environment and Health department

Ariyana is a student of Chittagong Grammar School. Besides reading, she likes writing, baking and getting to know about things unknown to her. The celestial body is her favourite topic of discussion. Ariyana can be reached on

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s