Notes From the Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Bangladesh

Over the past week, monsoon rains have flooded the Kutupalong-Balukhali refugee camp, an archipelago of settlements scattered throughout Cox’s Bazar, the southernmost district in Bangladesh. The mega-camp is home to more than 600,000 Rohingya living in a space roughly equivalent to Manhattan south of 14th Street. As of last year, this makes it the biggest refugee camp in the world, with a population density that exceeds many large cities. 

The recent flooding will draw attention to the immediate conditions within the camp, but there’s good reason to look beyond this week’s events to understand what is happening there. 

First, the devastating effects of flooding are partially a function of how quickly Kutupalong-Balukhali has grown. The rate of growth has meant that the natural evolution that occurs in most cities—the centuries-long process of developing the infrastructure that moves people and goods, that provides water and food—has not yet occurred in the refugee camps. The refugee population in Bangladesh has expanded steadily over the past two years, but the majority arrived over the course of just 100 days in late 2017, when the Burmese government began a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Muslim Rohingyas living in northern Myanmar. By way of comparison, Boston passed the 600,000 population mark more 350 years after its founding, and many major American regional metropolitan areas (Milwaukee, Sacramento, and Omaha, to name a few) have yet to reach that size.

I spent time in Cox’s Bazar this past spring as part of a team advising on solid-waste strategies for the camps. While working there, I often heard career aid workers refer to disaster response as a series of inflection points, from crisis to first response to gradual stabilization. Many NGO staff members are long-time veterans of this work, and they describe the early days of the camp as a sprint to meet urgent needs for shelter, food, and sanitation, followed by a brief catching of breath, and then a transition into longer-term needs like education and psychological wellbeing.

Because rural areas are rich in land and poor in the sorts of infrastructure and services that supply all the things humans need to live in close proximity to one another, the task of camp authorities is akin to building a city from scratch.

Providing these second-order services is complicated under normal circumstances, and even more so in a vacuum; setting up a camp inevitably entails a tradeoff between space, which is available in rural areas, and basic services, which are not. Because rural areas are rich in land and poor in the sorts of infrastructure and services that supply all the things humans need to live in close proximity to one another, the task of camp authorities is akin to building a city from scratch. 

For example, in most cities, solid waste is handled by some combination of city government and private business. Links create a chain that starts with, for example, the manufacture of a plastic soda bottle and ends with it processed in city-run plant. Along the way, the bottle is delivered to a local shop; purchased, consumed, and discarded; the household trash is collected and transported to a city plant; and then the bottle is recycled into something new. The full process depends on a sequence of actors and infrastructure—the manufacturers and their machinery, the wholesalers and the neighborhood vendors, the trash collectors and the recyclers—that together form a kind of urban ecosystem. Where any one element is missing, however, the entire system collapses. In the case of the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps, households lack trash bins, and the streets are too narrow for garbage trucks. Also, there is no land available for dump sites. The young camps have developed neither the physical infrastructure nor the institutions required to make them work. When people cannot cope, waste is burned or thrown into the street. Then, during the summer rains, drainage ditches are packed with debris, exacerbating flooding in the streets and in the houses.

More broadly, many of the same conditions that shape Kutupalong-Balukhali also underpin patterns of global urbanization and impact global politics, sometimes in unpredictable ways. While refugees leave their homes under the threat of persecution, urban migrants are often driven by events that unravel over the course of decades, not days. Around the world, poverty pushes the rural poor toward new opportunities in cities. Effects from economic stagnation and climate change ripple outwards from Saharan Africa across the Mediterranean into Europe, and gang violence in Central America leads migrants to seek asylum along the southern border of the U.S. In these places, and many others, an immigration “crisis” hinges largely on a semantic distinction between “refugee” and “migrant” (“economic” or otherwise) that determines who gets the right to cross which borders.

If the distinction between migrant and refugee seems somewhat artificial, the legal status attached to these labels is real. Although Bangladesh has generally allowed Rohingya asylum seekers to cross its borders based on their justified fear of persecution, it is not a signatory to either of the two foundational international agreements on the rights of refugees, the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) or its 1967 Protocol. Without official refugee status, the Rohingya are subject to a selectively applied Bangladeshi law from 1946 that restricts the movements of all noncitizens. While aid workers pass in and out of the camps easily (at least most of the day; access is restricted at night and on weekends), the Bangladeshi authorities monitor refugees more carefully, including through a series of checkpoints leading to the camps. These restrictions on movement translate into a different kind of immobility for refugees, who are denied access to education and livelihoods outside the camps. The result is that the sort of improvisation that often characterizes urban living—the creative solutions that residents devise to improve their lot, including, at times, stepping in where government is absent—is discouraged in the camps. 

In other ways, however, the refugee camps look more similar to cities around the world. Like the camps, informal settlements undergo a continual process of maturation into established city neighborhoods, looking beyond housing to incorporate “second-order” services—transportation, recreation, waste management—that are often conspicuously absent long after the settlement is absorbed by the city. Like the Rohingya, the inhabitants of these informal settlements live in limbo, their legal rights to city services disputed, or officially recognized and then ignored. 

Later, after the rebuilding, as the camp resumes its outward expansion and temporary urban facilities become permanent, it is worth remembering that the hundreds of thousands who live there remains something less than citizens. They are not alone in this regard. Places like Kutupalong-Balukhali may be ground zero for answering knotty questions related to the rights of migrants to live, work, and move freely, but what happens there, and in cities and along borders around the world, are iterations on a theme.

Featured image: Kutupalong-Balukhali camp in Bangladesh. Photo by John Owens via Wikipedia Commons.


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