“I have no more rice to cook for my children,” Nasima, a mother of three, said. “The last remaining rice I had was burnt in the fire.”
The great fire that occurred on 5 March 2023 in the Rohingya refugee camps at Cox’s Bazar, near the Bangladesh–Myanmar border, left nearly 16,000 refugees homeless. It also destroyed already limited food rations, as well as vital facilities for water, health and education. The fire started at 2:45 pm and burned till 5 pm on a windy day – it was impossible to salvage the bamboo-and-tarp shelters of the settlements. Thousands of families were unable to recover anything of their household assets, left with little choice but to flee the fire and save their lives.
The Rohingya people have been oppressed and persecuted in Myanmar for decades. In 2017, atrocities at the hands of the Myanmar military forced hundreds of thousands to leave their homes in Rakhine state. Many were killed as they fled to neighbouring areas, including across the Myanmar–Bangladesh border. Over the past six years, the Rohingya have continued their perilous journeys from Myanmar to escape persecution. Cox’s Bazar district in Bangladesh is now home to almost one million Rohingya, living in the world’s largest refugee settlement. They live in precarious, make-shift camps without adequate food, shelter, health care or education. Especially in the aftermath of the military coup in Myanmar in 2021, creating a volatile political environment across the country, there is no prospect for safe repatriation.
Nearly half the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are children. Since December 2021, almost 30 community-led learning facilities in the camps have been closed down. Without consistent support from the Bangladesh state and the international community, school-age children – particularly girls, who face greater barriers to learning – are deprived of access to education, weakening the long-term prospects of the community.
In February 2023, the World Food Programme (WFP) announced a reduction in food rations for Rohingya refugees in refugee camps in Bangladesh. This reduction, making already precarious lives even more precarious, risks leading to a number of terrible consequences, including rises in extortion, sex work, human trafficking and drug trafficking, as well as domestic violence and child abuse. The refugees are not allowed to leave the camps or work in local areas, and are almost completely dependent on the limited food rations provided by the WFP. Already, the rations received in the camps are inadequate – refugees survive on limited staples such as rice, lentils and oil, and most suffer from malnutrition. Many are forced to sell portions of the food they receive each month in order to purchase other essentials such as fresh food, clothes and shoes. Without proper access to food, children may be forced to leave school and engage in child labour. Since the Rohingya refugees have no access to formal work opportunities, hundreds of them, including children, continue to risk their lives attempting to make dangerous journeys to Malaysia and elsewhere by sea or crossing to neighbouring states.
The Rohingya refugee population in Cox’s Bazar is also extremely vulnerable to a variety of natural disasters, including flooding, landslides, fires and cyclones, all exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. The camps, overcrowded and squalid, have long been particularly vulnerable to fires. According to a recent report by the Bangladesh defence ministry, there were over 200 instances of fire breaking out in the Rohingya camps between January 2021 and December 2022, of which 60 were cases of arson. After a fire ravaged a camp in the settlement in 2021, at least 15 people were killed and nearly 50,000 displaced.
“I was at a local bazaar when the fire was started in my camp on 5 March,” Zomir Hussain said. “I didn’t know that a fire had started in my camp. When I heard that the fire broke out, I immediately came back and saw my shelter was totally destroyed and there was nothing left. Then, I was so distressed and I started looking for my children and family members. I found them after some hours. They all are safe. Now I have nothing to eat and wear. I need to rebuild my life from scratch.”
“The food rations that we receive monthly were essential,” Laila said. “I don’t know how we can survive if the WFP provides fewer rations to us. I’m very much worried for the health of my child and my vulnerable husband.”
Amir Hakim, a refugee with a disability, complained about other shortages too. He needs building materials to reinforce his shelter. “I have not received the bamboo I need to repair my roof before the monsoon,” he explained, “so I tied up the old bamboo with new rope and placed soil on top to strengthen the roof.”
Shamshul Hoque, at 92 years of age, is suffering from several ailments and doesn’t receive adequate medical attention. He pays weekly visits to the healthcare centres set up by NGOs in the camps. Medical professionals there recommend that he eat balanced meals. But his son M D Toyoub, a father of eight, who used to be a high-school teacher in Myanmar, cannot afford to buy him nutritional food. “I can’t eat only rice due to my illness,” Shamshul said. “I wish I could eat fruits and recover soon.”
Nur Jahan’s husband, Mohammed Hussain, owned a large plot of farm land and a fishing pond in Myanmar, which provided a steady source of income for their family. Since they arrived in the camps, he has been searching for a job through UN organisations. It’s been almost 6 years, and he still has no opportunities to work, or to start a business. Nur Jahan’s family, like so many others, is totally dependent on humanitarian aid.
Sajida has been struggling to support her family since she was separated from her husband while fleeing to Bangladesh in 2017. Sajida and her children now live in a refugee camp where she has no access to work and no one to help support her family. They solely rely on humanitarian aid provided by NGOs and agencies in the camp.
Sajida’s situation has worsened since the WFP reduced their monthly food rations, leaving her with limited options to provide for her family. “I’m worried about how I will feed my children until the next WFP distribution. It’s painful to see them go hungry,” Sajida said. “I have no idea where to get more food from, and my neighbours are also struggling. It’s a difficult situation.”
Kholi Ullah Ibrahim, a father of seven, also has limited prospects for work to support his family. When he first arrived at the camps, he started a vegetable garden near his shelter. From that garden, he gathers fruits and vegetables to help provide daily meals for his family.
“I’ve been a farmer since childhood,” he said. “Farming in my garden is my favourite hobby and that helps me feed fresh food to my family. The food we are provided by the WFP is not enough for the whole month. My garden supports my family with barely enough vegetables and fruits every month.”
This year marked the sixth Ramadan for Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar. The refugees found it immensely difficult to observe Ramadan this year as they could not afford to buy fresh produce to feed their families at sehri and iftar, the meals that bookend the daily fast. Rohingya vendors who sell fresh produce in the camp bazaar noticed a significant drop in sales compared to last year.
“I used to sell more than 50 kilogrammes of fish every single day during Ramadan last year,” Sadek, a refugee who has been selling fish in the camp bazaar for the last two years, said. “This Ramadan, I can only sell about 20 kilogrammes of the cheapest fish. Many can’t afford to buy enough fish for their families.”
Families would like to buy at least one fish and one type of vegetable for sehri during Ramadan. But due to the lack of income and cuts to food rations, most can’t afford to buy a whole fish. Instead, they buy cut pieces of fish that are affordable within their limited budget.
“This Ramadan, we’re selling much less compared to last year,” Amir Hussain, a vegetable vendor, said. “People don’t have the income to buy fresh vegetables for their family this Ramadan.”
“Watermelons are very expensive this year,” Kefayat, who sold watermelons during Ramadan, said. “And it costs a lot to carry them to the local market here in the camp bazaar. I can sell about 10 to 15 watermelons in the evenings. This is much less compared to last year. I find it difficult to sell larger fruits, although I have invested a lot for that.”
The Rohingya community – whether in Myanmar, Bangladesh or in forced exile in foreign countries – has been subject to prolonged and violent persecution over decades. The immediate and long-term repercussions of dwindling assistance from the international community will be catastrophic for this already vulnerable community. Instead of compromising on essential needs and leaving the Rohingya with no choice but to rely on dwindling aid, donors and host states must provide them with the tools and resources to sustain themselves.
Sahat Zia Hero is a documentary photographer and founding editor of Rohingyatographer Magazine (www.rohingyatographer.org).