In 2017-8, Climate Refugee Stories project collaborator Saumaun Heiat worked as a Program Support Officer for the International Organization for Migration in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Below, he writes about his experiences listening to the stories of Rohingya Muslim refugees in one of the world’s largest refugee camps, Cox’s Bazaar, on the southeastern coast of Bangladesh, and community members displaced by coastal erosion and relocated to Dhaka’s Bhola Slum.
Reflections in the Rising Waters of Bangladesh
by Saumaun Heiat
On August 25th, 2017, fresh waves of violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state towards the Rohingya people began the unraveling of one of the worst humanitarian disasters of the 21st century thus far. I arrived in Bangladesh on July 27th, 2017, to begin my internship with the International Organization for Migration (IOM-UN Migration Agency). Being a recent college graduate from California, I thought I was prepared to be immersed in a completely new country, culture, and work ethic and to grow out from the bubble of Orange County where I had been living.
Four weeks of my internship had gone by, and I was situated in my office in the capital city Dhaka working on survey reports and an awareness campaign on safe migration. However, the attitude in our office suddenly changed into disbelief, with everyone shocked to learn of the swiftness and scale of the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar into Bangladesh. I did further research on this humanitarian crisis, and found the history of the Rohingya within Myanmar to be one of marginalization and state-sanctioned violence stemming from the Rohingya being labeled as “illegal-Bengalis” resulting in the loss of their Burmese citizenship since 1982. With this crisis growing daily, I found a few of my projects put on hold as I became involved in drafting situation reports and assisting with IOM’s media coverage of this emerging refugee crisis. I soon got the call that I would be headed down to Cox’s Bazar, the hub of the influx, to conduct interviews and capture film footage of newly arrived Rohingya in the makeshift camps. In my three days in the Kutupalong Camp, I interviewed nearly a dozen new arrivals who shared their stories of loss of family and property, as well as the level of brutality waged against them.
Coinciding with my work with IOM on the Rohingya migration, I was a collaborator in this media project, Climate Refugee Stories, to obtain first-hand narratives from persons affected by climate and environmental changes within Bangladesh with support from my former professor Kristina Shull at my alma mater, UC Irvine. During her course “Climate Refugees” she and a group of students developed the idea to create a media project that uplifts stories of climate displacement. This project took me to the Bhola slum located in the Mirpur neighborhood within Dhaka. As Bhola is the coastal region of Bangladesh on the shores of the Bay of Bengal, it has been adversely affected by rising sea levels which has caused a drastic salination of once fertile farmland causing many of its inhabitants to migrate inward into Bangladesh, due to losing their livelihoods from the lack of lucrative farming options. This neighborhood where I conducted interviews is in Dhaka and named for the coastal region people have been fleeing from in search of a better life.
The personal narratives I recorded with the help of my translator Ripon, a former IOM colleague, from the inhabitants of the densely packed and makeshift slum all had a recurring theme of livelihoods lost from environmental shifts of soil erosion, rising water levels, and higher salinity content of the water. These testimonies run parallel to the concerns within the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar – both Bhola and Cox’s Bazar border the Bay of Bengal. The makeshift camps are prone to environmental hazards such as flooding and landslides from the strong cyclones and heavy rainfall produced during Bangladesh’s monsoon season. These temporary homes within the camps, being made from tarps and bamboo, were meant to last only for months, not meant to withstand the yearly monsoon cycle. It is only a matter of time before these political refugees become environmental refugees in this new context.
Hearing both the stories of the Rohingya as political refugees and the Bhola slum community as environmental refugees, there are similarities and differences in their personal narratives and thoughts of their own future contexts. From the new Rohingya arrivals at the time, their narratives were very much based in escaping violence, familial separation, and loss of property and assets, resulting in much more psychosocial trauma. While among the Bhola community we interviewed, there was undoubtedly also trauma in the narratives of loss of agriculture-based livelihoods, but those we spoke with also seemed more willing to adapt and accept their new urban environment. In regard to their future prospects, the newly arrived Rohingya at the time were overall more optimistic about eventually going back to their homes in Rakhine State but were wary about trusting the reintegration process, which now is looking increasingly bleak. The Bhola slum community, on the other hand, voiced much more of an acceptance to the reality of how climate change has caused irreversible change to their homes and livelihoods, resulting in individuals being more resigned to their fate as urban dwellers in Dhaka who must adapt to a new livelihood.
UPDATE—In the spring of 2020, while Climate Refugee Stories collaborator Tanaya Dutta Gupta was conducting fieldwork in Dhaka’s Bhola Slum, it was partially destroyed by fire and cleared by authorities with no warning, leaving many residents homeless.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is an intergovernmental organization, under the United Nations, that provides services for migrants and governments to promote orderly and humane management of migration. IOM views migration as an adaptive response to climate change, and understands that there is an environmental aspect in migration that is being intensified due to climate change, making it a very visible dynamic within migrant communities. Additionally, IOM believes that climate change will have adverse consequences for livelihoods, public health, food security, and water availability. This in turn will impact human mobility, likely leading to a substantial rise in the scale of migration and displacement. IOM’s most notable partnership in this context is the Climate Change, Environment and Migration Alliance (CCEMA).
Saumaun Heiat is currently a Humanitarian Assistance Fellow at Project Concern International. He holds a Master’s degree in International Relations and Affairs from George Washington University and a B.A. in International Studies and Political Science from UC Irvine.