“We have the monumental task of building a city in just a few days,” Halfdan Kjetland says.
A shelter expert, Kjetland is deployed to support the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) with the refugee crisis in Bangladesh. He’s planning a new refugee camp that will be one of the world’s largest, together with experts Håkon Valborgland and Shyam Sundar, who are supporting the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
An estimated 515,000 people have crossed the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh since violence erupted in Rakhine state on 25 August 2017. The first arrivals were taken in by local communities – mostly refugees already living in the area. But as the influx persisted, settlements and makeshift camps have popped up and continue to expand, overcrowded. Bangladesh is now hosting a total of more than 770,000 refugees from Myanmar. Many aid workers have been denied access.
From jungle to camp
For Kjetland, Valborgland and Sundar, building this camp is a race that's already half over.
"The refugees are already living in one half of the camp," Valborgland explains. "We are trying to plan for the second half, to give them more space."
The Bangladeshi authorities have allocated land for the camp, and although it's a huge area – just two months ago a jungle where elephants roamed – it's not quite big enough. The sheer magnitude of the influx means that people will have to live incredibly close to each other, which presents its own myriad of risks.
"There are many safety concerns," Sundar reports. "Fire hazards, landslides. And some camps are too close to roads with heavy traffic."
According to ACAPS, a poor road system has limited access to Cox's Baxar and is hampering the effective distribution of aid across all camp sites. Basic road repairs are underway in Unchiprang and Balukhali, but have been slowed by the heavy rain in late September.
Safety, disease and trauma
Kristin Næss-Andresen, a NORCAP-deployed public health specialist with UNHCR, recently visited Kutupalong camp, currently the largest camp in Cox’s Bazar. She observed the effects of this overcrowding in other ways.
With parts of the camp still waiting for electricity, clean drinking water and sanitation facilities, it’s especially hard for women and children to stay safe.
“[It] is a protection concern,” she states. “In particular for women and girls. Children of all ages are out of school.”
Næss-Andersen supervises and trains local partners, and works to identify the health and logistical needs among the refugees. UNHCR has established health centres to help combat diarrhoea and malnutrition in children.
She adds that many of the refugees are traumatised, suffering from psychological problems after the horrific experiences before, and while, fleeing Myanmar. Her view is supported by Virginia M. Moncrieff, an expert in communications with communities.
“The stories people tell us about what drove them over the border away from Rakhine in Myanmar are some of the worst I’ve ever heard,” Moncrieff says.
Rapid NORCAP response
When the first refugees started arriving in late August, two NORCAP experts were already on the ground.
With 5 million NOK (USD 62,5946) in additional emergency funding from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, NORCAP has been able to respond quickly to many requests from UN agencies in Cox’ Bazar.
Currently seven experts are working on the refugee response:
- Three shelter experts/site planners to UNHCR and IOM
- One public health specialist to UNHCR
- One child protection expert to UNICEF
- One communication with communities expert to IOM
- One ACAPS monitoring and evaluation specialist
A GenCap expert supports UN Women from Dhaka and a reporting and communications officer is working with OCHA across the border, in Sittwe, Myanmar.
Although many agencies are already overstretched and find it challenging to switch from development focus to emergency mode, there are positive signs:
“More humanitarian workers are arriving daily and the coordination is getting better. But with so many refugees living in these huge settlements, the struggle is to make sure everyone is looked after and have the basic needs to survive”, says Virginia M. Moncrieff.