A scramble to provide services in Bangladesh's far-flung refugee sites


In Cox's Bazar, aid groups may only have a few days  to prepare a new site before resettling thousands of refugees there.

The hike to the scrubby hilltops of Zone SS is grueling. From a food distribution site along the main highway, a vehicle can only drive about 10 more minutes on a rough, narrow dirt lane before it's necessary to get out and walk toward this newest settled sector of land.

It’s hot — an indiscriminate, scorching, dry season heat that beats down on thousands of refugees and hundreds of aid workers in this particular parcel of the 3,000 acres of property allotted for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

It is this trip — about 45 minutes for the most fit of walkers along uneven, hilly terrain — that more than 4,000 refugees most recently settled in Zone SS must currently undertake if they wish to reach the Bangladesh Army food distribution at the main road. The trek to Balukhali Bazar, where vendors sell goods like vegetables, fish, and pots and pans, takes closer to an hour one way.

It's the same distance that aid groups must consider when seeking to transport items like thick concrete rings to build latrines or heavy materials for deep well construction.

The Kutupalong – Balukhali Expansion Site, now divided into more than 30 zones, is home to an estimated 423,000 refugees, although more than 600,000 Rohingya have fled across the border from a violent Myanmar military clearance operation since late August. They join the more than 200,000 refugees already living in camps in the area. As Rohingya continue to arrive, the International Organization for Migration has little choice but to settle them farther and farther from existing, overcrowded camps and the services they offer.

As the months wear on amid the fastest growing refugee crisis, access and timing of service delivery have surfaced as some of IOM’s greatest challenges in site management.

“We’re having big issues with access, but it’s not the type of access we talk about in other humanitarian crises because of ongoing conflict or insecurity,” said Olivia Headon, an IOM information officer for emergencies currently deployed in Cox’s Bazar. “This is just really because of the terrain.”

Remote and undulating, refugees must scramble up and down steep hillsides to their homes or to access the nearest well. Young boys can be seen helping their families lash tarps to shelter frames, and IOM is providing bags to fill with clay in order to stabilize surrounding land. It’s an area highly susceptible to landslides, and one that may also face further negative interactions with wild elephants, as the once forested hills now make way for a sea of tarpaulin and bamboo shelters.

Lack of roads “has put a lot of agencies off
preparing for this area” because there’s no access,
said Siobahn Luikham, who works on IOM
site management, of Zone SS.

To complicate matters, agencies often “don’t necessarily know until the night before how many people are arriving and what spaces are available to take them,” Headon said. “Whether it’s a zone UNHCR is managing, or we are managing, or a zone that another humanitarian agency is managing… it has to be worked out among the agencies where these people should go and who should do what.”

For the planning of Zone SS, for example, "we were really not very much ahead of the people," Luikham said of relocating some 4,000 exhausted, malnourished Rohingya yet another hour to their new site. That hike came on top of what was likely at least a week of dangerous trekking through jungle from their Myanmar homes, two to three days in a transit center and another day's walk to Balukhali.

IOM has engaged volunteers to help refugees move shelter supplies and any other belongings out to the zones, but the terrain and distance to services will continue to prove especially difficult for the elderly, disabled or for single heads of household and pregnant women.

Nur Begum, a 50-year-old widow scaling fish near her yet-to-be-constructed shelter, spent six days on foot in the jungle to reach Bangladesh, followed by two nights camped on the Myanmar border, one night on the Bangladesh border and a night in a transit center.

“I was so afraid for my children,” she said of fleeing their village, where she didn’t feel comfortable burning a candle in her home after dark in case it attracted attention. Now, she relies on her children to make the long, dusty walk to the bazar to collect food.

New arrivals must register for an identity card in order to qualify for food distribution, a process that can take days. In the meantime, many adults and children walk for hours to a distant forest, where they cut wood to sell as fuel in order to buy food and other goods.

Distant Zone SS has become a main throughway for those returning from a morning of chopping wood.

Agencies are busy trying to bring services closer. To ease access issues overall, IOM is currently working on seven road projects, providing more access from main roads outside, as well as smaller roads inside the sites. The U.N. migration agency is also building five bridges, which will allow people and vehicles to cross canals and streams in different parts of the camps to reach people currently inaccessible to aid.

UNHCR, meanwhile, is contributing $2 million to support Bangladesh in constructing a road for easier aid delivery into Kutupalong--already, the tilled red earth of its construction is visible from a hilltop in Zone SS. The road will connect Kutupalong extension to the main road leading to Cox's Bazar, from north to south. About half of the road is levelled, and army engineers initially estimated it would be completed in one month, according to Mohammed Abu Asaker, senior public information officer for UNHCR.

Aside from IOM, Save the Children, Oxfam, UNICEF and several other agencies are already breaking ground on projects in Zone SS. But Luikham hopes to see more of a diverse presence of sectors represented in the next few weeks: “We’re trying to coordinate all the different service providers,” she said. “In some sectors, there’s still nobody and in others there’s a rush by multiple agencies.”

Emergency latrines and shallow tube-wells are present, while construction is already starting on a deep-tube well to pull safe drinking water, and a school. On the border of Zone SS, Save the Children has set up a temporary primary health care clinic, which is also providing nutrition and mother and child feeding programs. The clinic isn’t open as long as health workers or refugees would like — simply because it takes staff so long to get in and out of the camp each day, according to Tim Muir, a Save the Children media and communications manager currently deployed to Cox’s Bazar.

Another challenge arises when the clinic needs to refer a patient to a hospital for specialized treatment, “and often people don’t know where they are or how to get there,” Muir said, which isn’t surprising considering the expansion site has quickly mushroomed into a massive city with no detailed map and few signs.

Twelve-year-old Abul Karim, who settled in Zone SS just a few days ago, fled his village with his family when the military burned their house down and took their cattle, he told Devex. He heard there will be a school built in the area soon, though he’s not sure where it will be, he said, pointing his arm in several different directions.

Nearby, new arrivals are already beginning to settle in Zone XX.