Bangladesh: "More kidnappings, violence and extortion" for refugees—and fire in the camps

30 Mar 2021

Of the 860,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, most live in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. With COVID-19 compounding the poor living conditions—and the recent large fire that swept through the camp—the situation for those in the area is bleak. 

MSF's activities are centred in the ‘mega camp’, a large collection of 26 camps. Bernard Wiseman, head of mission in Cox’s Bazar, describes the conditions the Rohingya currently face. 


The morning after the fire destroyed thousands of shelters and facilities in Cox's Bazar, those living in the camps were left to sort through the charred wreckage to save what was left of their belongings. © Pau Miranda

What is life like in the camps?

“There has been a sharp deterioration in living conditions in the refugee camps over the past 12 months. The presence of police and the military has increased; at the same time, armed groups have expanded their power base in the camps. As a result, we are hearing about more kidnappings, violence and extortion.

The arrival of COVID-19 resulted in more restrictions on the refugees’ freedom of movement and on access to the camps for international humanitarian groups. In 2020, services inside the camps were reduced to the bare essentials and some organisations had to stop working in the camps altogether. In the early months, our teams had limited access, which led to a reduction in the quantity and range of health services we were able to provide to the Rohingya population. 

The Rohingya increasingly face a terrible dilemma. Many are becoming more and more desperate and hopeless as conditions in the camp continue to deteriorate, which makes them turn to risky choices. In order to escape, some choose to make the perilous journey on human trafficking boats departing for Malaysia, and others sign up to be relocated to the remote island of Bhasan Char, despite all the question marks about their future there.” 

What can you tell us about the island of Bhasan Char? 

“The island of Bhasan Char is a sand bar in the middle of the Bay of Bengal. It didn’t exist until 2006 and has never been inhabited. After the 2017 refugee crisis, the Bangladesh authorities imagined Bhasan Char as a place to relocate some of the almost one million refugees who had arrived from Myanmar. About 14,000 refugees were relocated there since December 2020, while the government eventually plans to relocate around 100,000 people. However, questions remain about the suitability and sustainability of the island: it is located about 60 km from the mainland and the only available mode of transport to the mainland is a shuttle managed by the Bangladesh military. 

There are currently around 20 former MSF patients on the island and we are still in touch with them. Their first reaction to living conditions on the island was generally positive. It’s not difficult to understand why: the buildings are concrete with metal roofs, which is certainly an improvement on the small mud and bamboo structures they have been living in for the past three years.”


A Rohingya volunteer from MSF's teams in Cox's Bazar. During the recent fire she and a group of other women were trapped between the flames and the barbed wire fence—she put her shoes on her hands to protect them as she forced the wires apart and fled to safety. © Pau Miranda

What are MSF’s concerns about the relocations to Bhasan Char?

“From a medical perspective, we are very concerned. We understand that only very basic primary healthcare is being provided by local NGOs. As far as we know, secondary and specialist health services are not available. We don’t know how patients requiring emergency medical care are transferred to hospital from the island, given the fact that it is a three-hour boat ride from the mainland. There has been very little engagement with Rohingya refugees or health providers in the camps in Cox’s Bazar to discuss how to ensure access to medical care on the island. We are trying to establish referral networks to ensure continued care to our former patients suffering from chronic illnesses, who require continuous follow-up and medication.

Until a long-term solution is put in place, we will continue to see policies that seek to restrict and contain refugees and prolong the ‘temporary’ and unsustainable nature of the ongoing situation for the Rohingya refugees.

Overall, the Bhasan Char situation is a symptom of the wider deterioration in living conditions in the refugee camps in Bangladesh, and is just one of many issues which the Rohingya have faced for decades – an ordeal which includes state-sanctioned violence, persecution, discrimination and the denial of their basic rights. 

The relocation to Bhasan Char is a consequence of the failure of the international community to provide a solution to what has become a protracted refugee crisis. Until a long-term solution is put in place, we will continue to see policies that seek to restrict and contain refugees and prolong the ‘temporary’ and unsustainable nature of the ongoing situation for the Rohingya refugees.”


An MSF team makes an assessment of part of the mega camp in Cox's Bazar on the morning after the fire, looking for people who have unmet medical needs after dozens of shelters were destroyed. © Pau Miranda

Update: Fire in Cox's Bazar

On 22 March, a large fire broke our in the camps in Cox's Bazar. According to UN estimates, around 15 people lost their lives during the massive blaze, with 560 people injured and up to 10,000 families—more than 45,000 people—displaced. The final numbers are still unclear.
MSF’s Balukhali clinic was completely destroyed by the fire. Fortunately, all patients and staff were evacuated from the clinic before the fire intensified. MSF treated 11 people who were wounded in Kutupalong hospital and the hospital on the hill as a result of fire.  
The full impact of the fire on the community is yet to be seen. This is a major blow to the Rohingya community, who have been suffering the consequences of the deteriorating living conditions in the camps. The Rohingya have been denied the ability to return to their homes in Myanmar safely and with dignity. The restrictions on their freedom of movement and with no access to livelihoods in Bangladesh, including the ability to work, mean that they are entirely dependent on humanitarian assistance.