What is life like inside the world’s biggest refugee camp?

Six years after Myanmar's brutal crackdown, Al Jazeera explores the current living conditions in Rohingya refugee camps.

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It is monsoon season in Bangladesh. Every year from June to October, heavy rainfall befalls the country. For one million Rohingya refugees housed near the base of the country’s spine, there is little defence against the elements - natural or manmade.

Cox’s Bazar refugee camp in southeastern Bangladesh webs together more than 30 individual camps of makeshift bamboo and tarpaulin structures. Families live in compact quarters, using communal toilets and water facilities.

Described by the United Nations (UN) as “the most persecuted minority in the world”, the state of survival for Rohingya in Bangladesh is prey to the pernicious effects of mother nature and camp life.

Camps in Cox's Bazar
[Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

What it means to be stateless

The Rohingya are a mostly-Muslim ethnic group who have lived in Buddhist-majority Myanmar for centuries.

They have faced persecution at the hands of the military since the country’s independence in the late 1940s. In 1982, a citizenship law excluded the Rohingya as one of the 135 official ethnic groups in Myanmar and barred them from citizenship, effectively rendering them stateless.

As a result, Rohingya families were denied basic rights and protection, making them vulnerable to exploitation, sexual and gender-based violence and abuse.

On August 25, 2017, Myanmar’s military launched a ferocious crackdown against the country’s mostly Muslim Rohingya, driving more than 700,000 refugees into neighbouring Bangladesh.

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Cox’s Bazar, home to a million Rohingya refugees

As of July 2023, at least 931,960 Rohingya refugees lived in 33 camps in Bangladesh’s border district of Cox’s Bazar. The sprawling network of camps, which is prone to landslides, covers a tiny area of about 24 square kilometres.

This makes Cox’s Bazar one of the most densely populated refugee camps in the world and more than 1.5 times more populated than Dhaka, the world’s most densely populated city.

An additional 30,456 refugees are located in Bhasan Char camp - a remote silt island in the Bay of Bengal established in December 2020 by the Bangladesh government.

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Being refugees, it’s not happy for us to live in this kind of situation - there is no proper shelter, no proper food, there is no proper education and no proper facilities that a human being deserves.

by Ro Yassin Abdumonab, a refugee living in Cox’s Bazar

Ro Yassin Abdumonab, a Rohingya refugee lives in the world's largest refugee camps
Ro Yassin Abdumonab, a Rohingya refugee and photographer, lives in the world's largest refugee camp [Ro Yassin Abdumonab/Al Jazeera]
Camp life in Cox's Bazar
Abdumonab's bamboo and tarpaulin shelter, where he lives with his family. Most of the shelters in the refugee camps are made from bamboo and tarpaulin [Ro Yassin Abdumonab/Al Jazeera]

Bamboo shelters

There are nearly 200,000 families living in shelters made of bamboo and tarpaulin. Aid agencies such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN and the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) procure the materials for refugees to build shelters themselves using locally sourced bamboo. However, these makeshift shelters do little to protect against torrential rain, floods and landslides.

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“I was affected by the floods last year,” Abdumonab tells Al Jazeera. “There was heavy rain at night. There is water drainage beside my shelter, but water was coming through all of the drains. The water was not able to flow… so [it] entered my shelter and then the water level reached up to my teeth."

It took Abdumonab two days to clear the water from his shelter where he lives with his wife, daughter, mother and siblings.

According to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), a single shelter made of bamboo and tarpaulin costs approximately $1,200, but these shelters often have to be rebuilt because of damage caused by heavy monsoon rains.

Living in such small spaces

The UN recommends the refugee camps should provide a minimum living area of 45 square metres (484 square feet) per person. This measures the entire living area including housing and sanitation.

But according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, only six of the 33 camps in Cox's Bazar meet this standard with 24 of those camps falling in a critical range of 29 square metres or less per person.

The most crowded of all these shelters is Camp 3 with only 12 square metres (129 square feet) available per person. This is the equivalent to conducting all daily life chores and activities in a space of just 3.5m by 3.5m (11.5 feet by 11.5 feet)- the size of a bedroom.

The illustration below compares the average living area per camp:

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Sahat Zia Hero is a volunteer aid worker and freelance photographer, living in Balukhali (Camp 11) with his family. There are a total of 11 people living in his home including his grandfather who shares a room with Hero’s two younger brothers.

I don't have a space to sit … sometimes it is very dark, especially during the monsoon, as the solar panels don't get sun. So we don't have light in the shelter and it remains very dark.

by Sahat Zia Hero, a resident of Camp 11

Sahat Zia Hero, 29
Sahat Zia Hero, a Rohingya photographer stands near a busy road in one of the Cox's Bazar camps [Sahat Zia Hero/Al Jazeera]
Shelter in Cox's Bazar refugee camp
Community members, volunteers and rescue workers dig through the soil in Camp 9 to recover the bodies of a pregnant woman and her daughter who were killed due to a landslide on August 7, 2023 [Sahat Zia Hero/Al Jazeera]

“From a macro scale you're looking at one million people in camps and keep in mind these camps were meant to be temporary. And the restrictions imposed on the refugees and the Rohingya people is that they are all temporary structures. So they live in bamboo shelters for the last six years and they live behind a razor wire.” Arunn Jegan, Head of Mission Bangladesh at Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) told Al Jazeera.

Jegan also spoke to Al Jazeera about the privacy and safety concerns that come with living in such small shelters.

“If you can imagine 5 to 6 people living in a small bamboo shelter there really is not much privacy for women and that's one of the reasons why they're probably the most affected people in this camp as well.

I've met women who haven't left their block in the last three years and you could imagine what that would do to someone. The lack of privacy there is quite concerning.

by Arunn Jegan, Head of Mission Bangladesh at MSF

Girl in Cox's Bazar refugee camp
Evening view of Camp 11, the day after a cyclone affected newly built shelters [Sahat Zia Hero/Al Jazeera]
Evening view of Camp 11, the day after a cyclone affected newly built shelters [Sahat Zia Hero/Al Jazeera]

Basic sanitation

Cramped living conditions have also led to poor sanitation and the spread of disease.

Hero, who works as a humanitarian volunteer told Al Jazeera that many people in every family are suffering from dengue fever and other diseases including waterborne illnesses and skin infections due to the lack of hygiene and access to proper water and sanitation.

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According to the UNHCR standards, a communal toilet should be shared by no more than 20 people during the emergency phase of a camp. However, in longer-term accommodation, one latrine should be dedicated to one family (4-6 persons).

Nineteen out of 33 camps in Cox’s Bazar are operating beyond the UN guideline.

The Kutupalong refugee camp has it the worst. There each toilet is shared by an average of 54 people.

The illustration below compares the number of persons per latrine across all 33 camps.

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“We did a survey recently…and it really pointed out that a lot of toilets were overflowing, they were unusable because they didn't have proper lighting in them. So while some infrastructure is there, the facilities themselves aren't adequate,” Jegan told Al Jazeera.

We are now six years into it and the world has moved their attention away from Bangladesh, from the Rohingya.

by Arunn Jegan, Head of Mission in Bangladesh at MSF

Rohingya Refugees Flood Into Bangladesh
A Rahima Begum, 25, holds her four-year-old daughter Taslima, as they wait to be relocated to another camp in Thainkhali camp, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, September 25, 2017 [Paula Bronstein/Getty Images]


Washrooms are usually housed in small cubicle structures scattered around the camps.

According to UNHCR standards, a washroom should be shared by no more than 50 people.

Once again, the Kutupalong refugee camp with some 17,768 inhabitants remains in the most dire situation where an average of 224 people share the same washroom.

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Poor water hygiene and sanitation has also contributed to the spread of scabies, a contagious skin condition.

“You can see issues like scabies happening right now, we've got the largest outbreak of scabies that the world has ever seen. Over 40 percent of the population have it - that's over 400,000 people,” says Jegan.

Mohammed Akter, 8, collects drinking water in a jerrycan from a tube well at the Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, March 25, 2021 [Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters]

Cox's Bazar, children jump into water
Despite the dirty water, children in Balukhali camp enjoy playing in the water during monsoon season [Ro Yassin Abdumonab/Al Jazeera]
Despite the dirty water, children in Balukhali camp enjoy playing in the water during monsoon season [Ro Yassin Abdumonab/Al Jazeera]

Water sources

While water from pumps is essential to the wellbeing of the Rohingya, they are faced with a more ominous source of water when the monsoon season starts. Floods and landslides render many of the basic facilities useless, while a very pertinent fear of what the rainfall could bring looms over the heads of many.

"There are so many people who can't even sleep at night because of the water. Families [are afraid] their children will die because most of the people who are living in high areas [face landslides]," Abdumonab told Al Jazeera.

When it comes to water sources, 22 out of the 33 camps are operating within the UN standard of one water supply for every 80 people. However, two camps in particular, namely Camp 22 and the Nayapara camp, surpass this standard by a factor greater than 10.

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“One of the most important things for someone's health and mental wellbeing is access to water, it helps them clean themselves, it helps them have a dignified life, it helps them cook, clean…and when that is in shortage, it causes an issue for people trying to desperately survive and trying to be resilient in what are very hard conditions that they have to endure,” Jegan explains.

Rohingya woman
A Rohingya refugee woman collects drinking water from a well at a refugee camp in the Cox's Bazar district of Bangladesh, on March 9, 2023 [Mahmud Hossain Opu/AP Photo]

The mental toll and hope of return

Much of the mental burden refugees face is rooted in the indefiniteness of their situation and the uncertainty of being able to return home.

Everyone has a hope to return home, you know. So everybody is saying that ‘our hope is our home’ but it's not happening. Repatriation is not happening. It is now six years.


Earlier this year, Bangladesh and Myanmar announced a pilot project to return about 1,100 people back to Myanmar, despite the UN stating the conditions were not right.

“Bangladesh is frustrated with its burden as host, but sending refugees back to the control of a ruthless Myanmar junta will just be setting the stage for the next devastating exodus,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement in May.

Cox's Bazar
[Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Children in Cox's Bazar refugee camp
[Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

“The Myanmar government is not taking us back to our country with [the] dignity, the citizenship or the rights we deserve. There are many elders, men and women who always talk about how one day, ‘we will be able to go back to our own country with our rights’, Abdumonab said.

“That's why the mental health of the youth, elderly people and children is impacting them a lot, because most of the refugees here don't have any work, any source to make money, they can't support their families, they can't go anywhere, they can't go back to their own country.”

Source: Al Jazeera