Cox’s Bazar, located in South-East Bangladesh, is a renowned fishing port and holiday destination for its sandy beachfront against the Bay of Bengal. For my parents, from Sylhet in Bangladesh, this was one of their honeymoon destinations in 1996. I myself have travelled from the UK to visit Cox’s Bazar a few times. Had I known that Cox’s Bazar would drastically turn into the world’s largest refugee camp for Rohingya refugees escaping ethnic cleansing from Myanmar, I would have held the memories tighter to truly acknowledge and remember what it once was before it became a lifeline for millions.Cox’s Bazar is a fishing port city and the district headquarters in southeastern Bangladesh. Being a tourism centre, it famously has the world’s longest natural sea beach in the world along the Bay of Bengal and a rich history tracing back to the colonial era and comprising refugee rehabilitation of the Rakhine people even before the current Myanmar conflict.
The modern Cox’s Bazar derives its name from Captain Hiram Cox, superintendent of the Palongkee outpost for the East India Company in the late 18th century. He embarked upon the task of rehabilitation and settlement of the Arakanese refugees (the current Rakhine people from Myanmar) in the area following the Burmese invasion of the Arakanese kingdom (modern-day Rakhine state in Myanmar). Captain Cox died in 1799 before he could finish his work, so to commemorate his role in rehabilitation work a market was established and named after the late captain. Today Cox’s Bazar remains one of the most visited tourist destinations in Bangladesh that both me and my parents have a few seashell souvenirs and scenic memories of.
What is the Myanmar or Rohingya Crisis?
Rohingya Muslims represent the largest percentage of Muslims in Myanmar, with the majority living in Rakhine state. However, the government of Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country, denies the Rohingya citizenship and have even excluded them from the 2014 census, therefore refusing to recognise them as a people. They are perceived as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
This has resulted in social tension and militaristic violence involving extrajudicial killings, burning of villages, gang rapes, infanticides and blatant textbook ethnic cleansing to drive the Muslim minority out of the nation. As described by UN investigators, the military was ‘killing indiscriminately, gang-raping women, assaulting children and burning entire villages’ in Rakhine. UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Andrew Gilmour, drew such a conclusion from talking to the refugees in Cox’s Bazar:
The ethnic cleansing of Rohingya from Myanmar continues. I don’t think we can draw any other conclusion from what I have seen and heard in Cox’s Bazar.
What are the impacts on the host communities of Cox’s Bazar and what is the Bengali community’s response to the refugee influx?
Bangladesh has shown solidarity to the Rohingya refugees through providing temporary shelter in Cox’s Bazar and leading the humanitarian response amongst the international community. However, the tremendous scale and speed of the recent influx of Rohingya refugees has undoubtedly had an economic, social, political, environmental, and security impact on the host communities in Cox’s Bazar district, where the Rohingya refugees have almost universally settled. The district is one of the most impoverished regions of Bangladesh, already struggling to cope with poverty, rising cost of living, high population density, and the effects of regular natural disasters and the climate emergency.
A detailed survey of Bangladeshi people and their perspectives on the Rohingya refugee crisis helps highlight though the welcoming spirit of the residents of Cox’s Bazar to their desperate new arrivals, with one interviewee stating:
With the region’s impoverished state in consideration, when thinking about the Bengali community’s response, both within Bangladesh and the migrants or diaspora that live globally, it’s astounding the level of understanding and empathy the Bengali people have towards the refugee crisis. In a time where there is hostility, Islamaphobia, racism, and far-right sentiments in Europe and America against any genuine Syrian and Yazidi refugees fleeing from the brutalities of the Syrian Civil War, it’s heartwarming to see a difference in approach, acceptance, and understanding of the Rohingya refugees despite the huge strains placed on the Cox’s Bazar district. As Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, put it, ‘Bangladesh is not a rich country, but we have a big heart’.
The local people received them [Rohingya] very cordially. They [Rohingya] came to Bangladesh crossing the Naf river by fishing boats…In this situation, local people helped to carry them to doctors for medical support. Children and women were given food and water by local people. They were also given dry clothes to wear. a local family managed to give them shelter. Among them, there was a child whose parents were killed by the Myanmar army. They picked the child from the yard when it was crying. That Bengali couple adopted the child.
However, more must be done by the Bangladeshi government, the international community, and other third sectors to help provide security and truly invest into the host communities of the Cox’s Bazar district to help lift them against their struggles with impoverishment and high population density, coupled with the refugee crisis and the climate emergency.When reading this article I would firstly ask of you to really reflect on any memories you have of your heritage and to hold them to heart. You will never know how the places you have visited, the stories you’ve made or listened to, could drastically change. Looking back, I should have done this myself to truly grasp this moment of history where myself, and my parents obviously more so, have seen the “before” and “after” of one of the largest consequences of the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people. Secondly, I’d ask you to genuinely put aside the politics of refugee/migration and religion to actually check in with yourself, take down the walls, and think for a moment the trauma, brutal survival, and hope of these people. I want you to read their stories and of the Cox’s Bazaar people.