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Bishop John Arnold visits the Rohingyas

Bishop John Arnold visited Bangladesh with CAFOD to view a number of projects with local partners throughout the country. Here he recounts the events of the day. He visited the Rohingya camp with Archbishop Moses of Chittagong and CAFOD representatives.
I must say that I find it difficult even to start to recount these events. It has been at once a marvellous, depressing, hope-filled, and despairing experience. I will only be able to take you through the sequence of what happened.

The journey from Cox’s Bazaar to the camp was about an hour. We arrived at the refugee camp and had managed not to be stopped by the military. It is difficult to describe the scene. This is a city, stretching 14 kms and housing 900,000 people. It is beyond description. There were only a few motor vehicles, all belonging to the aid agencies and the roads in the camp were teeming with pedestrians.

The camp is divided into 20 zones, all named by double letters: AA, BB, etc. Caritas has been entrusted with three zones and this is likely to rise. There was nothing at all here last year on these hills and then the Rohingyas began to arrive in late August.
The first essential was to provide them with food and simple shelter. There were such numbers that the various aid agencies were so overwhelmed that the essentials were all that could be provided. Archbishop Moses of Chittagong came to the camp in December and things were in a dreadful state. Some 800,000 refugees had arrived in a matter of a few weeks. With materials provided by the government and the agencies the people began to construct temporary shelters in a rather haphazard manner.
In December an engineer working with Caritas offered advice on improving the housing. He was with us today, explaining his project. They chose a section of BB Zone to pilot the ideas. The people there were unwilling to re-locate as they were understandably exhausted and afraid, and felt that they might lose even the simple shelters that they had made. So the engineer devised ways of installing drains and sanitary systems, wells and street lighting which could be undertaken by the Rohingyas themselves.

He found them to be willing volunteers and willing to accept guidance and building instructions. In just two months they transformed the housing and made the alleyways clean and drained. The shelters are rebuilt and are now sturdy constructions. There is no doubting that conditions here are still utterly basic but they are clean. This transformation has proven to be a model and is offered to the other zones. Many are taking the opportunity to improve the better conditions and the UN is funding the materials.
While being horrified that people should be crowding into this place as refugees, there is much to be grateful for in the improvements that are being made.

We also went to areas outside BB where these improvements have not yet taken place. There was much squalor and the shelters were very fragile and cramped. It was a very different place. The alleyways were filling up with garbage and there were no drains.
The fears at present are about the monsoon rains which are imminent. The camp is built on dozens of hills and there is little rock for any firm foundations. Heavy rains could cause another disaster through landslides and flooding. We saw a team of men digging out a canal through one of the valleys, clearing the mud and debris in expectation of the rains.

Everywhere there were small children. The Government have not allowed the provision of schools, but many of the agencies provide child-friendly areas where the children can safely gather. It is tragic to think that so much valuable time in their young lives is being wasted.

We visited a relocation centre. This is for refugees already in temporary accommodation in Bangladesh who are moving into the camp. We met a very impressive and young Caritas team who assist them in various ways. So when a family arrives they are asked to choose a plot on which to settle. They are given the rudiments of a shelter. They receive vouchers for food and are registered. It takes maybe three days for them to construct the shelter and in the meantime they sleep in one of the child-friendly areas when the children have gone. Families with very vulnerable members with disabilities are assisted by Caritas staff and housed within a day. They are also trained by specialists in various aspects of hygiene, as there is always the danger in such places of outbreaks of various diseases.

We walked quite a distance through the camp and, as we reached the top of a hill, there was another landscape of shelters stretching ahead. There were also some hills in the distance which will all be included in the expanding camp very soon. It is said that about 1,100 refugees arrive daily. If that is correct then the camp is likely to exceed one million people by the summer. While a number of the refugees have been able to start shops and small trades, most are necessarily idle, as are the women and children.

Contact with individuals was difficult. We obviously stood out as visitors and must have been objects of curiosity. The children were all around us wherever we went and they were testing their few words of English, with constant ‘How are you?’ They had smiles and curiosity, but also the shyness of all children.

The women in general were silent and very few made eye contact at all. They were often looking out from the doorways of their huts not wanting to engage even with a smile. Little wonder. They are foreigners with a different language to their hosts, let alone to us visitors, and there were also all the religious attitudes and customs of a conservative Islam. The men were generally the ones in the streets and alleyways yet there was almost no individual contact with them either.

One woman invited us into her home because it was arranged that she would show us her improved accommodation and answer questions but she did not speak Bangla and what she said needed to be translated. The understandable lack of personal contact with outsiders must be a major factor in the sense of isolation they feel.
There were marked differences in appearance. Many were clean and smartly dressed, which was a wonder to me given the conditions. But there were others who were disheveled and in rags. I suppose the overwhelming impression was in the sheer numbers of people with the knowledge that the crowds that we saw were repeated everywhere through this vast camp, all trapped and frustrated and fearful for an unknown future.

When we left the camp by the same road we found that the military, who were improving it, had in fact closed it by dumping loads of earth across the road so we had to turn back and leave by another route.
It will certainly take me some time to be more objective about all that I have seen. The challenges are far from over for the Rohingyas. How long will they be held in the camps? Will there be adequate protection against the monsoons? What is the future for them? Will they be allowed back into Myanmar and feel that they can go there with a sense of security? Many voices I have heard suggest not.

News that the border between Bangladesh and Burma is becoming more militarized was spoken about widely while we were in Cox’s Bazaar. There was no indication that the Rohingyas feel able to return to Burma as they are afraid that they will not be able to re-settle in their own villages, that they will be vulnerable to further violence and will still have no rights as citizens. This problem seems no closer to a political solution.