Over 688,000 Rohingya refugees now living in the makeshift camps and host villages along the Myanmar border

With over 688,000 Rohingya refugees now living in the makeshift camps and host villages along the Myanmar border in the Cox’s Bazar region of Bangladesh, societies and communities are adapting as inhabitants begin to build themselves a new life. Although safe from the violence and persecution they have escaped in Myanmar, the refugees’ lives in Bangladesh are far from easy. With limited and interrupted access to basic services, little or no family support and the difficult process of recovering from the psychological and physical aftershocks of trauma, it is with resilience and spirit that these new communities forge connections and social structures. Meanwhile, international and local agencies struggle to build up the infrastructure needed and ensure that basic needs are met.

Time is a precious commodity in an environment where even the most simple tasks are a logistical and practical challenge. With a population made up of 60% children and 30% women, the burden of physical labour often falls on adolescent boys and women, with men in the surrounding residences stepping up in a show of solidarity to support the wider community.

What happens when a new family arrives depends on whether they are entering into a formal camp, makeshift settlement or host community. Typically, they have access to bamboo and tarpaulin (either from the aid agencies or bought in the local markets) with which to build a shelter.

The shelters in the residential areas are small and often comprise of one room in a low bamboo structure encased in tarpaulin and weighed down by palm leaves and bricks on the roof. The encroaching bad weather means that the camps are prone to waterlogging and damp, meaning that firewood storage and cooking needs to be done inside the house, along with the general living. Groups of families often choose to live communally, allocating separate residences and representatives for duties such as cooking, childcare, sleeping and so on. This division of labour allows more to be made of the limited space and resources available.

The initial days and weeks following arrival are usually spent exploring the area, discovering which NGOs and agencies are active and registering for health checks, food aid packets, collecting water containers / cooking utensils, solar lights or other items being distributed and registering children in the makeshift schools that have been established.

Once the initial collections are done and families are familiar with the services available to them, they must build their time around structured aid deliveries like the weekly food distributions, the school schedules, health/vaccine programs etc. Daily tasks like collecting water and firewood can be distributed to younger members of the family, and it is common to see children holding places in the line at water points or collecting wood and other items from the local distribution points.