By Francis Markus, IFRC
Before the latest influx of hundreds of thousands of people from Myanmar’s Rakhine state began in August last year, Laila Begum says the area close to her house was nothing but forest, with elephants roaming through the vegetation.
“Now it’s much better. We have a hospital and a learning center for the children,” says the 30-year-old Bangladeshi woman, whose home is close to a camp for new arrivals from Myanmar about 90 minutes’ drive from the town of Cox’s Bazar.
Her 7-year-old step daughter attends the centre and seems happy there, even though there are only about five Bangladeshi children among perhaps 30 or 40 youngsters from Myanmar.
Laila has come to the community center set up by the Danish Red Cross and the Bangladesh Red Crescent at the Tanzimakola camp for those displaced from Myanmar. It is just across the path from a tented field hospital, set up by the Iranian Red Crescent Society a few days ago to treat the displaced from Rakhine and local villagers.
She says she may be interested in joining one of the groups which psychosocial workers at the center have set up for women, meeting regularly each week.
Laila’s family runs a small shop selling items such as fruit or sweets popular with the local children. Although there are clear signs all around that the influx has created business opportunities for some local Bangladeshis providing goods and services to the new arrivals, it has also naturally generated competition.
Asked about how the influx from Rakhine has affected her business, she says: “Before, there was only one shop, now there are many.”
But overall, her attitude towards the displaced Myanmar arrivals is supportive. “We helped them because they face many problems, so we donated clothes and other things when the influx first began,” she says.
In general, according to aid workers and Bangladeshi villagers, there is little social mixing between locals and the displaced community. Many have raised concerns about the environment, with extensive cutting down of trees for firewood and bamboo for construction.
“We all live in the same environment and so environmental impacts that affect the camp population will also impact the host community,” says Gavin Reynolds, who is studying the environmental impact of the Red Cross Red Crescent action under the Green Response initiative for the Swedish Red Cross. “The host community is largely farmers and agriculturalists and as such are strongly linked to the land. Water pollution and an increased risk of flooding may strongly affect their livelihoods.”
Hasina is another woman from the nearby Bangladeshi village who has just seen the doctors at the Iranian hospital.
With her daughter and her niece, she has also stopped by at the Red Cross Red Crescent-run center. The two teenage girls say they are interested in attending the sessions on sewing and English classes which are among the activities the center is offering.
As a result of the influx from Myanmar, Hasina says that the land which they used to farm and graze their two cows on has been swallowed up by shelter for the new arrivals.
Now, the family is reliant on the income which her husband can make from construction work. In the region’s current economic situation, that is not a happy position to be in.
Robert Templer, a researcher and consultant who conducted dozens of interviews in the area, says, “I heard the same complaints from almost everyone: prices are up – although this is mostly because of flooding last year and global increases in rice prices – and wages are way down. Most of the Cox’s Bazar District population are day laborers and are now being undercut” by new arrivals from Rakhine.
Nives, one of the Danish Red Cross psychosocial workers at the center wonders whether it might be possible to help Hasina’s family with some seeds or some training in growing food in a limited space.
It’s not going to solve their economic worries. But it could make a small difference. There are no easy answers in a situation that many here see as shaping up to be a protracted crisis. The best that humanitarian actors can do may be to extend a helping hand to local Bangladeshi villagers in whatever way they can to mitigate the impact of the situation.