Hear one aid worker's account of feeding a makeshift city of 1 million Rohingya refugees—and the new threat that now looms.
From the air, the Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh looks like a labyrinth built on a hillside. Tens of thousands of makeshift tents packed together on a rolling terrain.
From the ground, it is sprawling, chaotic and crowded.
And in recent weeks, it’s earned a dubious title—the largest refugee camp in the world.
Kutupalong is not only the biggest refugee camp on the planet, with a population of 1 million and counting, it’s also the most densely populated. And it took just six months to more than double in size.
It all started last August, when violence in neighboring Myanmar sparked a mass exodus of Rohingya families. In a matter of weeks, hundreds of thousands of people fled for the safety of Cox’s Bazar, a coastal town in Bangladesh where some 400 million people had already sought refuge.
“At the border, I remember my colleagues were saying it was a tsunami of people, waves of people crossing the borders,” an aid worker named Sunee Singh told me recently by phone from her base in Cox’s Bazar.
“So we were always trying to figure out how many are coming in, which bases they were going to, which settlement has popped up over the night.”
Sunee has watched this crisis unfold from the beginning. As a Policy Programme Officer for the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), she was one of the first responders, charged with helping organize impromptu food distributions among traumatized and hungry families, many of whom had traveled for days on foot.
Rohingya families have been fleeing persecution in Myanmar for years, but in much smaller numbers. Last year, Sunee and her colleagues had expected roughly 75,000 refugees to arrive in Cox’s Bazar. But in just three months, nearly 700,000 people crossed the border—ten times the amount they had predicted. Makeshift settlements literally sprang up overnight.
“We realized by the second week of the influx, it was just beyond expectations,” Sunee recalled. Initially, she thought her colleagues were exaggerating the number of new families arriving every day from Myanmar—until she made her first visit to the camp.
“In the moment I stepped out of the car, there were a lot of families surrounding me because they know I was with WFP and they were indicating they needed food.
It was very overwhelming in the sense that you’re surrounded by these faces and you see they’ve been through a lot. In front of you there are people who don’t even have umbrellas to shelter them from the rain, who look very thin. There was these women drenched along with their small kids with them, and it was just clear they had been starving for days.”
Since then, Sunee and her WFP colleagues have been working to keep up with the demand for food. Every family in the Kutupalong camp and surrounding makeshift settlements relies on emergency humanitarian assistance to survive.
Every two weeks, the agency provides rice, fortified cooking oil and “pulses,” or beans. Each food distribution requires families to be registered and household sizes recorded so the agency can determine how much food to provide. WFP is also distributing specialized nutrition products to pregnant and nursing mothers and children under five, who are particularly susceptible to malnutrition.
In the moment I stepped out of the car, there were a lot of families surrounding me because they know I was with WFP and they were indicating they needed food.
Right now WFP is feeding almost 900,000 Rohingya refugees in Kutupalong and other nearby settlements—that’s 90% of the camp’s population. But there’s a problem: A recent study found that nearly half of all children who live there suffer from anemia, an iron deficiency often caused by an unbalanced diet.
Sunee told me that as the flow of refugees has slowed, the agency is starting to transition away from traditional food rations to e-cards, which work like debit cards, allowing families to purchase fresh food in local markets set up by WFP in the camp. This means access to meat, dairy and produce for the first time in months for many of these families. These e-cards aren’t just expanding dietary diversity either. They’re also restoring a sense of choice among Rohingya families who’ve lost so much.
“It’s also about food with dignity. No need to queue up, no need to wait. They have these cards issued to their names,” Sunee said.
“They can go to the food shop set up by WFP, which is in their settlement itself, which is close to where they live.”
This crisis has yet another layer and one that is often lost when talking about refugee crises. Many of the Bangladeshi families who live in Cox’s Bazar—the nearest town to the Kutupalong refugee camp—are struggling to put food on the table themselves. This is something aid workers like Sunee are especially mindful of.
“In the beginning, there was a sense of humanity and a lot of support from the Bangladeshi communities,” Sunee said.
“But that has gone down, especially in the host communities nearby the camps. Now the labor market has been affected. Wages have gone down, prices for commodities have increased. Because the livelihoods of the host communities have been affected, this has also led to some underlying border tensions and stress building up.”
Even before the Rohingya refugee crisis, WFP was already operating in Cox’s Bazar, one of the country’s poorest districts, to help Bangladeshi households struggling to overcome poverty. The agency is working to continue these programs — and e-cards are part of these efforts. By selling locally grown food in the camp instead of rations, WFP is creating a reliable market for Bangladeshi food producers and sellers, injecting much-needed money into the local economy.
“And soon enough, subject to funding, we will also look into self-reliance for the refugees as well,” Sunee says. “So they can graduate out of assistance, and they could be at least partially reliant on assistance.”
What Sunee remembers most about those first few days during the height of the crisis was the sound of children crying. “It was a situation of despair,” she recalled.
Six months later, a sense of normalcy has started to return. Children are attending learning centers in the camp, where WFP is providing High-Energy Biscuits—a special fortified food packed with calories and nutrients—to encourage attendance and facilitate concentration. Women are attending what the U.N. calls “Safe Spaces,” where they can start to cope with the trauma of the violence they witnessed back home. When she visits the camp now, Sunee told me she sees more children playing and more happy faces.
“But I would say that that may not last long. Soon the frustrations may arise. Because how long can you be so dependent on aid?”
For now, another threat looms: The coming cyclone and monsoon seasons, which start this spring. The Kutupalong camp is located on the southern coast of Bangladesh, one that is frequently battered by typhoons and torrential rain. And because most of the camp’s tents are precariously built by the refugees themselves out of little more than bamboo, rope and plastic sheeting, flooding and landslides threaten to wash away almost 10% of the camp’s tents.
WFP staffers are working with UNHCR and the International Office of Migration to do what it can ahead of time to prepare. They’re reinforcing roads, building bridges and digging drainage ditches. They’re trying to build the infrastructure of a city that already exists.
And Rohingya families are still arriving.
When I asked Sunee what she would say to someone in the U.S. asking how they could help, this is what she told me:
“I would say that every dollar counts. There is no other source or no other choice that they have to live their life, to carry on with their day-to-day life. Without any assistance, they cannot go on.
So every dollar counts. Every drop-drop could make an ocean.”
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