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Robert Templer: The Rohingya refugee crisis is taking its toll on Bangladesh's poorest

Environmental damage and economic strain add to an already precarious situation on both sides of the border

Refugees can cause environmental concerns in neighboring countries in addition to being economic and political problems.   © Reuters

From any vantage point in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, a landscape of human misery stretches to the horizon. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are now packed into bamboo and plastic shacks in one of the world's largest refugee camps -- there are more than 65 countries with a smaller population than this makeshift settlement.

Dotted across the camp are signboards for most of the main international relief organizations, which are providing services and food for this new tent city. But it is the locals and the people of Bangladesh who are bearing the greatest burden of sheltering those fleeing brutality -- or even death -- at the hands of Myanmar's military and vigilante groups.

Amid the massive suffering evident among the camp's traumatized inhabitants, the consequences for Bangladesh barely get a mention. This crowded and impoverished nation of 160 million people, one of the most densely populated on Earth, is now spending more than $1 million a day to sustain its own relief and security efforts.

While it was the second-fastest growing economy in the world in 2016, with 7.1% annual growth according to the International Monetary Fund, nearly one-third of the population lives in extreme poverty. The arrival of more than 625,000 people since August alone -- following the influx of hundreds of thousands from earlier waves of violence in Myanmar -- means that refugees now outnumber locals in the southern district of Cox's Bazar.

Inevitably this is raising anxieties. Bangladeshis are sympathetic to the situation of the Rohingya, regarding them as victims of barbarous violence on the part of the Myanmar military and ethnic Rakhine mobs. But they also have a long experience sheltering Rohingya and they know that each wave brings new problems and greater uncertainty. They also know that whatever agreements are signed between the two governments, the Rohingya will not be going back soon.

HARSH CONDITIONS In several dozen interviews in Cox's Bazar, conducted as part of a research project, I heard the same complaints from almost everyone: Prices are up and wages are way down. Most people in the district are day laborers. Rohingyas will work for less than half the normal rates, leaving the locals even more impoverished. To cook, the refugees are cutting down forests and digging up tree roots, causing serious environmental destruction. The country has seen extensive flooding this year, so food prices are already high but have been pushed skyward by the new arrivals.

Cox's Bazar is already a difficult place to live if you are poor. It is one of the least developed areas in Bangladesh and as one of only two districts bordering Myanmar, it has long operated a frontier economy driven by the trafficking of drugs and people. Exploitation is woven into the way business gets done. A village official known outside Kutupalong camp was charging new arrivals a few dollars, renting them land for shacks and making them pay to sell a pitiful array of goods by the side of the road. The political economy of refugees always means some people do well, and in Cox's Bazar it is the local leaders with their many criminal links.

But for most people the refugee inflow just means greater burdens. Schools have been taken over to house the military. When this occurred during a previous influx, few students ever returned to education. Relief trucks clog the roads and hospital beds, already scarce, are filled with injured refugees. Locals must prove their identity at many police checkpoints, doubling the time it takes to get to work. Inconveniences are multiplying for a population that is not much better off than the refugees.

Amidst the international horror provoked by the extreme brutality of Myanmar's security forces, it is not often mentioned what an unconscionable act the military campaign, branded "ethnic cleansing" by international organizations and some governments, signifies against its neighbor. The Myanmar military has long maintained a hostile demeanor toward Bangladesh, but even the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi has been sullen at best, failing to keep up even the most basic diplomatic exchanges and routinely ignoring Bangladeshi appeals to resolve problems. Having driven its war on the Rohingya people across the border, Myanmar is likely to drag its feet for years over any returns, insisting on impossible demands such as the internment in concentration camps of all those who return.

UNCERTAINTY AWAITS The consequences in Bangladesh may be far-reaching. It is unfair to stigmatize the Rohingya in the camps as "extremists-in-waiting" for only a handful have ever committed violent acts. Nevertheless large demographic changes and movements of people often create instability. Anxieties about southern Bangladesh becoming the next ISIS stronghold are absurd fantasies -- there is simply no extremist infrastructure to support jihadis from elsewhere -- but the region may yet become an inspiration for violence, in the manner of Kashmir or Palestine. Large numbers of disaffected and bored young people -- the refugee population is mostly under 18 -- is a recipe for conflict and crime, particularly in an area already afflicted with both. The Buddhist indigenous people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, an area that has seen decades of conflict and an unfulfilled peace process, are increasingly worried that the refugees will be deployed for land grabs and attacks on their villages.

Bangladesh is heading into elections, often a time for violence. The Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina is deeply corrupt and unpopular, and is fighting dirty, using its intelligence agencies and the judiciary to weaken the opposition. With a buoyant economy, Sheikh Hasina was expecting the poll -- due before early 2019 -- to be a coronation. Now she is balancing various delicate issues: She needs international support for the refugees while ensuring they go home as soon as possible. She needs to maintain relations with Myanmar to get a deal while castigating them sufficiently to build international pressure on Naypyitaw. In the meantime, the refugee issue has galvanized the religious right who see the attacks on Rohingya as a campaign against Islam itself.

Around the world, several countries have "weaponized" refugees, driving people across borders in a way that threatens their neighbors and creates regional insecurity. They never pay a price for their inhumanity or for their violations of international law. Myanmar may take back a token handful of Rohingyas, but it will not reimburse Bangladesh for its huge costs. The burden of supporting refugees often falls heaviest on the poorest countries, where it can take the biggest political toll as well. But the costs of sharing the burden on Bangladesh will be much less than a weakened or unstable country, possibly producing its own refugees.

Robert Templer is director of the Barcelona-based Higher Education Alliance for Refugees and works as a consultant for international organizations on refugee and conflict issues.

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