Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh: It is impossible to move along the road in front of Kutupalong refugee camp. The crowds of people walking towards the camp do not abate. Men and women carry heavy sacks on their shoulders, children carry their younger siblings. Lorry upon lorry with aid supplies crawls along the narrow, sandy road. People are selling fruit and dried fish from little stalls. It is noisy. It is hot. Amid the crowds, the convoy with Foreign Minister Gabriel comes to a halt.
Kutupalong is the first stage of the Foreign Minister’s extraordinary trip. A good 400 kilometres from Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, in the Bay of Bengal, one of the most dramatic refugee crises of our times is unfolding. Since late August, hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya from neighbouring Myanmar have fled here. For decades they have suffered discrimination and persecution in Myanmar. In recent months, more than 600,000 people have crossed the border into their neighbouring country in response to new police action. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has described this as the most rapidly growing refugee crisis in the world.
Kutupalong: more than 800,000 refugees
Gabriel travelled from Dhaka to the Cox’s Bazar region in the south east of Bangladesh in a helicopter belonging to the Bangladeshi air force. Seen from the air, the huge size of the refugee camp becomes apparent. Settlements comprising corrugated iron huts, barracks and temporary buildings adorn the hilly countryside in Cox’s Bazar, the refugee camp stretches out as far as the eye can see. 830,000 people have found refuge in Kutupalong, more than the populations of Frankfurt am Main or Seattle. The helicopter takes a good five minutes to fly around the area.
The helicopter lands in the Bay of Bengal. It is not possible for it to get any closer to the refugee camp. Near the small town of Inani, one of the longest sandy beaches in the world can be found. Local people like to spend their holidays here. Kutupalong is just half an hour away: it is a clash of civilisations. On its way, the convoy passes cycle rickshaws, pedestrians, wandering cows, rickety roadside stalls, wooden buildings, paddy fields. It is not easy to say where the Bangladeshi village ends and the refugee camp begins – for the surrounding villages are also affected by severe poverty.
Bangladesh is doing a great deal to help the Rohingya. At the same time, Bangladesh is itself one of the poorest countries in the world. A quarter of the population live below the poverty line, and disasters caused by flooding regularly destroy the livelihoods of many people. Bangladesh is also the most densely populated country. Its capital, Dhaka, is home to around 45,000 people per square kilometre.
International support in the crisis
The refugee camp can only be visited on foot. Wooden, corrugated iron and plastic shacks stand closely together, the roads are full of people, many of whom are injured, traumatised, plagued by fear. The heat is oppressive. People also sit by the side of the road. They are waiting for food handouts and watching the spectacle created by the visit. Aid organisations are working around the clock in Kutupalong, providing basic medical care and distributing food to the refugees. In a small hut, aid workers dance and play with children – in an attempt to create a measure of normality. But there are still enormous problems. When the rainy season begins, the dusty streets will be transformed into slippery torrents and the risk of infection will increase.
So far, no tensions have arisen between the refugees and the local population. “Yet the conflicts will come,” Gabriel said. Ground water supplies are growing scarce, local people and new arrivals are competing for casual work. Bangladesh cannot handle this situation on its own.
Germany is therefore increasing its assistance to the country by twenty million euros. Among the international community, too, the willingness to help is considerable. Gabriel was accompanied by EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs Margot Wallström. All four subsequently travelled on to the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting of the Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar. Here, too, the situation of the Rohingya will be discussed: in cooperation with Myanmar, conditions must be put in place which will allow the Rohingya to return to Myanmar and live there.
The visit to Kutupalong also posed a logistical challenge. On the way back, Protocol staff sent a text message reading, “Convoy no longer exists.” Due to the hectic activity on the roads, the vehicles were soon separated – but eventually they all arrived at the helicopter airfield.
Nonetheless, the main outcome of the visit was a lasting impression of the suffering of the people, which will no doubt remain with Gabriel and his delegation for a long time to come.