Why The World's Biggest Refugee Camp Has No Fear Left

It was not that they did not care about the risks. It was that they had already suffered so much it was impossible to contemplate life getting any worse.

Fear is one of the most common emotions I encounter as an aid worker. Fear of violence. Fear of food running out. Fear of not having a roof over your head.

What’s remarkable about the world’s largest refugee camp, in the barren hills of south-eastern Bangladesh, is the apparent absence of that emotion.

In just a few weeks, annual monsoon rains will unleash a catastrophe for almost a million people who have made a temporary home here.

Their flimsy makeshift shelters, hastily constructed and perched precariously on the hillside, will provide little protection from the landslides and floods that are predicted.

A Rohingya family stands by their makeshift tent in Tankhali, Bangladesh. Image: Getty.

Despite the impending danger, the refugees I spoke to appeared unperturbed. It was not that they did not care about the risks. It was that they had already suffered so much it was impossible to contemplate life getting any worse.

Most families here fled neighbouring Myanmar nine months ago after escaping unspeakable atrocities. Their villages were torched, women were raped, men beaten and shot, some simply disappeared.

To get to Bangladesh, families trekked for days through swollen rivers and muddy fields, often arriving at the refugee settlements with nothing but the clothes on their back and children by their side.

The long walk to 'safety'. Image: Getty.

I’ve worked in Syria, South Sudan and Lebanon and I’ve never seen a refugee camp like the mega settlements that have emerged so quickly in Bangladesh.

Aid workers are scrambling to prepare the camps for the inevitable rains. It is a hive of activity with bamboo being carried in every direction, shelter roofs being lowered, walls reinforced and extra nails hammered in. But the top priority is toilets.

When violence in Myanmar broke out in August last year, close to 700,000 refugees crossed the border, most of them in just a couple of weeks. To cater for the influx, toilets were built quickly in shallow pits, with new homes soon erected around them as ever more refugees clambered for any remaining land.

When the monsoon rains arrive, these existing toilets will overflow, sending excrement and disease downhill in the path of homes and kitchens. With toilets destroyed, people will have no choice but to defecate in the open.

It’s going to unleash a health emergency, with the rates of cholera, diarrhoea and other waterborne diseases expected to skyrocket.

It is hard to convey just how devastating these rains will be. Consider the average monthly rainfall in a city like Melbourne. In its wettest month, October, Melbourne gets 6cm.

In this part of Bangladesh, during the peak of the monsoon season, the monthly average rainfall figure is 90cm.

"It's hard to convey just how devastating these rains will be." Image: Getty.

We all know -- and complain about -- the chaos a rain dump can bring to a big city like Melbourne: traffic gridlock, trains delays, flights grounded. Now imagine more than ten times as much rain, and in a place without our first world amenities.

In the refugee camps of Bangladesh, families of five to 10 compete for space in their makeshift homes, constructed out of not much more than plastic sheets, bamboo and twine. The floor is just dirt. Dirt that will quickly turn to mud when the rain starts.

When the refugee crisis began late last year, Bangladesh, already one of the poorest, most densely populated countries in the world, opened its borders.

It was in stark contrast to what happened in Europe during the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015, when the influx of refugee sparked a surge in anti-refugee sentiment and nations quickly put up borders.

Image: Getty.

Bangladesh by contrast has been both welcoming and compassionate. It serves as an example some of the world’s richest, and some of the most sparsely populated, nations should follow.

It’s this generosity, and solidarity, that Myanmar refugees depend on to survive. For their life is in limbo: unable to return to Myanmar, unable to settle permanently and work in Bangladesh.

At least in the camps the refugees have food, shelter, schools and toilets. And most importantly, they are safe.

Image: Getty.

But without the financial and political support of the international community to end this crisis, their prospects are bleak.

In the first quarter of this year, aid organisations responding to this disaster received just 8 percent of the funding they needed to help those who depend on it.

Without more support, this desperate situation will only get worse.

Donate to CARE’s Bangladesh Crisis Appeal at care.org.au/Bangladesh or by calling 1800 020 046