Article Correctness Is Author's Responsibility: The World’s Largest Refugee Camp Is Becoming a Real City

From the top of a viewing tower in Cox’s Bazar District in southern Bangladesh, bamboo and blue-green tarpaulin constructions sprawl in every direction, as far as the eye can see.

The Kutupalong camp is home to more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees, crowded into a temporary city spread across five square miles. They live in fragile, improvised shelters, with nothing but the possessions they fled Myanmar with. Another 300,000 Rohingya refugees live in comparable squalor in satellite settlements and camps to the south, on a peninsula adjoining the Naf River that divides Bangladesh and Myanmar. A warren of passageways dissects the vast Kutupalong camp, revealing its unplanned nature; the settlement sprang up organically around the refugees as they fled to Bangladesh in late 2017.

But in a small area of open space known as Camp 4 Extension, aid workers are busy designing and creating what could become the future for the refugees. On a rare unpopulated plot of land, several new two-level prototype bamboo and steel frame homes sit, awaiting approval from the Bangladesh government.

“We have been able to really create a settlement that is a top international standard,” says Marin Din Kajdomcaj, head of operations and sub-office for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Cox’s Bazar. “I am humbly saying it’s fantastic.”

With Rakhine State in Myanmar still locked in active sectarian conflict, the crisis shows no signs of abating. The Rohingya in Myanmar are either confined to camps or live in partially destroyed villages, denied the opportunity for work, formal education, and freedom of movement. Monsoon season is now underway, introducing the threat of cyclones to an already vulnerable population. So authorities in Cox’s Bazar are turning to a new solution to ease the suffering of refugees: infrastructure.

With the prospect of the Rohingya not being able to return to Myanmar for years to come, the prototypes in Camp 4 Extension reflect how aid and relief organizations are finding new ways to manage the long-term needs of the most populous refugee camp in the world.

A city of the displaced: The Kutupalong camp contains about 600,000 people, and efforts are now underway to create more permanent structures for them. (Victoria Milko/CityLab)

The crisis intensified on August 25, 2017, when thousands of Rohingya began crossing the Myanmar border in Bangladesh, fleeing violence that the United Nations has described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Many of them were starving, having traveled for four or five days, and conditions were dire as vast queues of people thronged the border. “I saw an old woman slip down from a river bank, then she died as nobody could [rescue] her,” says Rohingya refugee Anamal Hassan.

When he arrived, the land was cloaked in jungle. With help from the Bangladesh government and local communities, refugees quickly set up makeshift homes around existing registered refugee settlements that had formed after waves of violence in Myanmar in the 1990s and earlier. As part of the initial response, the UNHCR also gave refugees kit material to build their own shelters. During the first year, the Bangladesh Army built a dirt and brick road to allow greater aid access, and stabilized the landslide-prone hills that refugees began to settle on.

The refugees carved away large swaths of forest—including parts of a protected nature preserve—for building materials and cooking supplies. The camps sprung up along elephant migration corridors—elephants trampled at least 10 refugees to death. Other threats loomed, too. Congested living conditions breeds a high risk of fire and disease. Monsoons brought flash flooding and mudslides to the rugged, hilly land; in 2018, the UNHCR conducted risk and hazard assessments and mapped the riskiest areas before moving at least 24,000 people to safer areas.

After 18 months and about $1 billion in international aid investments, the Kutupalong camp was deemed relatively stable, according to Kajdomcaj. Food security indicators have improved and immunization coverage has grown to over 90 percent. Some 97 percent of Rohingya refugees said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the help they are receiving from non-governmental organizations in the camps, according to a survey of about 1,300 refugees conducted in early 2019 by Xchange, an NGO that documents human migration.

“We now have a totally different response,” Kajdomcaj says.

Today, there is a semblance of order inside the camps. Along its main roads, retail districts have emerged, where Rohingya shopkeepers sell hot meals, snacks, toiletries, betel nuts, and other items traded from Cox’s Bazar. In single-room workshops, men toil to fashion wooden furniture and machetes for chopping firewood.

A pilot design for a new kind of two-story bamboo-sided shelter uses a steel frame that can be quickly disassembled and moved. (Victoria Milko/CityLab)

In November 2018, UNHCR began the large-scale distribution of liquefied petroleum gas to refugees and the host community to use as a cleaner, safer source of energy for cooking and heating. New tube wells and public toilets have significantly improved the city’s hygiene and sanitation situation, with 93 percent of refugees surveyed by Xchange saying earlier this year that the camps were satisfactorily clean. In February 2019, Oxfam opened the largest sewage plant that has ever been built in a refugee camp, which is capable of processing the waste of 150,000 people.

When the monsoon season approached in May, Rohingya volunteers armed with stabilization kits strengthened the shelters against high winds and cyclones. Lightning arresters have been installed to better protect the camps from storms, and designated safe havens mean that, unlike last year, people know where to go in an emergency.  

As the city has grown, so has vehicular traffic. Colorful tuk-tuks—three-wheeled taxis—carry women in hijab between the market and their shelters, jostling for road space with pedestrians and trucks piled with lengths of bamboo construction material. Aid distribution areas, marked with a flag system for communication, are particularly congested. Children are everywhere: carrying drinking water for their families in their arms or on their backs, standing in doorways, and running between houses. In barber shops, they sit patiently with their small heads bowed and their feet dangling high above the floor.

Still, life in the camps is precarious. The impression of growing normality and order can’t erase the lack of privacy and security. Crowded homes, lack of ventilation, and an open sewer system have contributed to outbreaks of disease. Heavy monsoon rains in July left at least 10 people dead and destroyed about 5,000 shelters, even after the storm preparation efforts.

“Although we were under pressure in Myanmar, we felt better there than here,” Hassan says. “There, we had our own home, compound, and village. Here, we only have our shelters.”

Despite recent improvements, conditions remain difficult for Rohingya families in the camps. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)

But efforts to improve conditions in this ad-hoc city have run into a fundamental impasse: The Bangladesh government has banned the construction of permanent housing, insisting that the Rohingya will soon be returning home to Myanmar.

Since a failed attempt to repatriate some 3,500 Rohingya to Myanmar in mid-August, the Bangladesh government has shut down mobile-phone access for refugees and announced plans to set up barbed-wire fencing, watch towers, and surveillance cameras enclosing the camps. Local opinion toward the refugees is turning increasingly sour.

Humanitarian aid workers in Cox’s Bazar say privately that the idea the Rohingya will soon return to Myanmar is wishful thinking. Myanmar’s rejection of the Rohingya’s right to citizenship and a new conflict raging across the border between the Myanmar military and the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army mean that large-scale returns are unlikely. In a sign that the Bangladesh government expects the Rohingya to stay for some time, it is planning to move some 100,000 Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char, a flood-prone island formed of sediment at the mouth of the Meghna River. The island only emerged from the river less than 20 years ago.

Meanwhile, on the ground in Cox’s Bazaar, there are groups that are testing the limits of the restrictions imposed by the Bangladesh government, with tacit approval from local authorities. UNHCR is starting to look further ahead, says Kajdomcaj.  

In part, the organization is looking to provide further support to the Bangladeshi host community, which is now less than one-third the size of the refugee population. For two years, this community has been sharing its resources, including health facilities, water, access roads and daily wages with refugees—a one-way street, since the Rohingya are not officially permitted to work.

Kajdomcaj says that the United Nations and Bangladesh government are now creating a district development plan that will support 13 sectors of the camp. This plan would stretch the definition of “temporary in nature” to acknowledge that refugees will continue to use public services and that the capacity of hospitals and access roads needs to be improved. “The word temporary is quite flexible in meaning,” Kajdomcaj says. “It can mean a minute, but maybe a couple of years as well.”

The government has also offered two areas of land for camp extensions, where the UN and its partners have been able to plan shelters, infrastructure, and services before families move in.  

In Camp 4 Extension, a pilot hamlet built by Bangladesh-based development organization BRAC and UNHCR has been designed to be environmentally conscious and more space-efficient. Like so many other cities, Kutupalong is suffering from excessive urban sprawl: The mass deforestation that has taken place in nature reserve surrounding the camps has been a source of tension with the host community and has increased the risk of deadly landslides.

Camp 4 shelters have steel frames that can be dismantled, which means that refugees can theoretically take their houses with them when they move home, reassembling them in about three hours. The sides are bamboo, and the structures are raised on stilts so that air can flow beneath them, a traditional means of cooling. Some boast two stories, so they can provide homes for larger numbers of refugees. If such shelters were rolled out across the camps, they could reduce the use of space by between 20 and 40 percent, depending on the terrain.

Other initiatives are aimed at improving the built environment for women and girls. Oxfam launched the Women’s Social Architecture Project last year, which recognizes the significant challenges that stem from the dominance of male architects and engineers within the humanitarian community. The project works with women and adolescent girls and women architects to add a different perspective into the design and siting of water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities in the Rohingya camps.

Designers in the U.S. are helping to facilitate these dreams for more stable refugee camps. Nadyeli Quiroz and John David Wagner at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design are embarking on a year-long collaboration with OBAT Helpers, an Indianapolis-based community nonprofit, to explore how to create varied functional spaces within the camps, such as outdoor courtyards or provisional pop-up designs.

These designers are looking at the possibility of building shaded ventilated spaces connected to community kitchens, where women can spend time preparing food during the day—an escape from the monotony and isolation of shelter life. Architects and advocates are starting small, with an aim of impacting about 200 people by the summer of next year, but they hope that projects like this can be scaled up.

Such improvements can’t entirely overcome the stark facts that underlie this ongoing refugee crisis: The Rohingya are essentially trapped in a congested prison, potentially for years. Denied fundamental rights in Myanmar, they cannot go home, and their welcome in Bangladesh is wearing thin. Still, small changes to the built environment can make daily life more bearable.

“We don’t want having good architecture to normalize a situation that should not be normalized,” Quiroz says. “But we have to be honest about what’s going to happen, and [the camps] are not going anywhere for now.”