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Where Social Cohesion Works: Refugees in Cox's Bazar

Words and images by Magnus Wolfe Murray, a Re-Alliance member currently working in Bangladesh.

Above: Camp 26, just down the road from Shamplapur. Fences are going up to surround all the camps, making freedom of movement even harder. And the feeling of confinement is ever more real.

Shamplapur is a town on the coast an hour or so drive south from Cox's Bazar. A river estuary emerges here; a town emerged generations ago. From the 1970s, Rohingya people came here to work in the fishing boats; more people came in the 90s, many of them refugees fleeing Myanmar's military horror. And again in this most recent refugee influx in 2017. Perhaps mindful of their pressure, possibly by local edict, the numbers remained relatively low, at around a few hundred families. By late 2017 there were several thousand refugee families.

They rented land from local landlords for their shelters, they worked in the boats, the tea shops, they shopped in their markets. Children were born, they went to the local schools, were raised with the locals. They grew up and married into the local community, had kids, lived a life. A classic story of migration and settlement.

Then, this year, the central Government in Dhaka decided they needed to shut down this integrated community altogether. To every extent possible the Government wants to prevent refugees becoming permanent here. And integration with the local community - a big no-no.

So Shamplapur is the latest example to be set, and it's quite tragic to see entire communities dismantled, the people given notice and a few weeks to pack. Using a pretext of national security concerns (despite the lack of any security pressures here).

Local businesses are furious, they've invested in larger boats, now they lose much of their labour. Shops and markets will lose half their trade. All those young people raised here, now being forced to leave. The Government isn't exactly forcing them at the point of a gun, but it certainly isn't informed nor voluntary movement - which is what we hold up globally as a basic principle for a decent approach to population movements.

Above: When things couldn't really get much more difficult, people are forced to move again.

So where will people go?

Most of the Rohingya communities have left already, trucked off to different camps inland. And many others to a new island the Government has developed called Basanchar, from where it's said they cannot leave or return to the mainland.

All that said, it's really hard for western governments to criticize or even raise concerns, when we do so little we can be proud of with refugees on our shores. Throughout 2017, the UK accepted a total of 6,212 refugees (during the height of the Syrian refugee crisis). Other asylum seekers who show up on the shores illegally are locked up in quite appalling centers, from where, like those Rohingya in Basanchar, they cannot leave.

Above: Picking up the pieces - a family after relocation from "outside the fence" in camp 26, where they had to dismantle their shelter, with quite old bamboo and material which couldn't be re-used - meaning they were forced to buy most of it again.

But look for a moment at how other countries deal with refugee communities.

The French Government closed the camps in Calais with violence and abuse. Literally burning and bulldozing the refugees and migrants out. Australia is perhaps the worst offender with its harsh policies of sending asylum seekers to Nauru Island, for many years, where eventually human rights groups exposed extreme levels of mistreatment, sexual exploitation and unfathomable levels of despair and depression brought on by years in a kind of purgatory where you're not allowed to work, study or progress in life.

Whereas other countries seem to have a much more reasonable approach. Uganda hosts some 1.4m refugees (mostly from South Sudan). They're allowed freedom of movement, they can work, study, farm the land. In Turkey, the world's largest refugee hosting country, has 4m, mostly people from Syria. Again, they're allowed to work and live relatively freely, given special ID cards. A Turkish Doctor I met recently said it had led to a degree of economic development as factories and agriculture had benefited from the increased labour market. Pakistan and Iran too, for decades have accepted millions of refugees - most of them working, renting homes and starting businesses. And Germany welcomed about 1.8m refugees and asylum seekers - despite the criticism sometimes used that they only accept well qualified refugees.

So the struggle continues. Shamplapur settlement, also known as camp 25, is one of 34 camps in total. One can't get too engaged on only one. The old adage of winning a battle but losing the war, perhaps translated here as knowing what you cannot change, focusing on the things you can influence, and trying to keep a level head enough to know the difference.

Above: An area where other refugees were settled - but into a sunken basin of land which is likely to flood when the rains start. Is this a disaster waiting to happen?

Words and images by Magnus Wolfe Murray, a Re-Alliance member currently working in Bangladesh.

Re-Alliance aims to promote a regenerative, place-based approach to settlement design. For some examples of what that can look like in different contexts, see our case studies page here.


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