|Seen is the world's largest refugee camp for Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar in Kutupalong, at Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Friday. Korea Times photos by Park Ji-won|
By Park Ji-won
COX'S BAZAR, Bangladesh ― After an hour's flight from the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka and a two-hour drive along a bumpy road from Cox's Bazar's airport, dozens of journalists and scholars arrived at the entrance of Kutupalong, a Rohingya refugee camp. It is the world's largest refugee camp and its whereabouts has placed it in the center of a controversy in the international community.
The Rohingya are an ethnic group, the majority of who are conservative Muslims who have lived for centuries in the majority Buddhist Myanmar. The U.N. has defined the Myanmar army's actions to expel them as "ethnic cleansing" and continues to call for action and accountability to tackle one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.
Upon arrival at noon, more than 10 camp residents, mostly children, instantly surrounded the group showing curious but cautious facial expressions. Many who were in their teens were carrying their younger siblings on their waists.
|Bamboo for house construction is displayed on a street in Kutupalong, at Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Friday.|
On the dirt road, several young men were building houses, mixing cement and carrying bricks next to stacks of bamboo. There were remnants of cement that looked like some people were building stairs. Makeshift houses were densely packed against each other, as the horizon stretched to show the mountains of Myanmar. There are allegedly several unknown entry points linked to the camp from Myanmar territory, according to aid workers. A Bangladesh official said there were 30 camps looking just like this one across 6,000 acres in two sub-districts of Cox's Bazar.
The sun was very hot with few trees left to offer shade. A total of 4,300 acres of hills and forests were cut down to make temporary shelters, facilities and cooking fuel in Ukhia and Teknaf of Cox's Bazar, threatening the biodiversity of Bangladesh's forests, according to the UNDP.
Defining the refugees as "forcibly displaced persons from Myanmar," Bangladesh's high-ranking government officials, including Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali, National Assembly speaker Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, and H.T. Imam, a longtime political adviser for the country's prime ministers including present Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, didn't hide their desperate need for international support. They also demonstrated the ecological damage to their land due to the establishment of the Rohingya camps, during their meetings with foreign journalists.
The number of has exceeded 1.2 million since August last year according to government sources. The government generously opened its gates for those refugees, but still those officials' messages are clear: The refugees are meant to go back to Myanmar. The assembly speaker said "they will go back," while the foreign minister said "all refugees want to return."
Even H.T. Imam asked for China's support in resolving the matter, saying, "China has important leverage on Myanmar. If they come forward, I think the issue can be settled."
The foreign minister also revealed the government's plan to send 6,000 Rohingya refugees to Myanmar "very soon," which might be controversial without guarantees of safety, as dozens of refugees are still coming to the camp every week looking for shelter.
Local sources said the generosity may aim to win the Nobel Prize. "Winning the prize can help the country to earn leverage against illegalities that follow when a country seeks economic development."
Hundreds of young men with possible connections to the nation's opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) whose leader was sentenced Wednesday to life in prison for plotting to assassinate Hasina when she was in the opposition joined an anti-government rally. The country is preparing for national elections in December.
While political forces fight each other without taking any big steps to guarantee the refugees' safety in Myanmar, more people are coming to the camp seeking another chance, fleeing violence and death.
|Twenty-five-year-old Rohingya refugee Somira is interviewed by The Korea Times in Kutupalong at Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, last Friday.|
Contradicting the government's narrative, 25-year-old refugee Somira told The Korea Times, "I don't want to go back. I fear the violence." She came to the camp last year with her husband and other family members after losing her mother-in-law to violence.
"I am willing to work. If there is a training program, I would definitely participate and learn skills."
Thankfully, they are provided food items once a week. A refugee expert said "they look comparably healthy compared to people at other refugee camps."
Still, however, they had nowhere else to go beside the camp. They are not allowed to work outside. They are also not eligible for citizenship; many of the Rohingya have no citizenship from the past, so they are confined to live only there. By 6 p.m., aid officials must leave the camp. Another round of life starts on its own.
|Boys watch journalists in Kutupalong, at Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Friday.|
Boys played football barefoot. There were small shops here and there selling snacks and vegetables. A couple was holding a wedding ceremony. It was almost like a small country. A U.N. official said some people own smartphones to communicate with relatives who are still left behind in Myanmar. Regardless of what happens, life goes on.