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A woman surveys the damage caused to her home by Cyclone Mocha at Saint Martin island in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on May 15.Al-emrun Garjon/The Associated Press

From high above, the world’s largest refugee camp looks like a city. Blue and grey roofs are intersected by a web of roads. A river runs through the middle of it all. As one gets closer, however, the roads are revealed to be nothing but dirt tracks, the buildings closely packed metal and tarp shacks, the river brown and prone to flooding.

About a million Rohingya refugees live in the Kutupalong and Nayapara camps in Cox’s Bazar, on the southeastern tip of Bangladesh, between Myanmar and the Bay of Bengal. They began arriving in 1978, when a military junta in what was then Burma drove them from their homes in the border state of Rakhine. Many went back over the following decade, only to flee again in the 1990s as a new junta cracked down.

Myanmar transitioned to partial democracy in 2015, but the Rohingya, a Muslim majority people who have lived in the region for centuries, were not granted citizenship. In 2017 the military, which retained most of its power, launched a series of “clearance operations” that sent hundreds of thousands across the border, a campaign that was denounced as genocide by the United Nations.

As refugees poured into Cox’s Bazar, so did journalists and aid workers. The crisis dominated front pages around the globe, and world leaders lined up to express concern. Money poured in – for a time.

Six years on, the Rohingya remain in Bangladesh. Many children who fled in 2017 are now teenagers or young adults. Thousands of new babies have been born in the camps. But to say life carries on in Cox’s Bazar would be wrong: The refuge has become a nightmare.

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Rohingya refugees gather to buy essentials at a market area in Kutupalong camp a day after cyclone Mocha made landfall, in Ukhia on May 15.MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images

In February, the UN World Food Program announced it was scaling back food vouchers for the first time, the result of a funding shortfall. In June, they were cut again, to US$8 per person per month, or just 27 cents per day. With few other reliable sources of food in the camps, many refugees depend on the vouchers. The WFP said some 45 per cent of Rohingya families were already malnourished before the cutbacks, with young children and pregnant women particularly at risk.

“How can the international community cut their rations? It’s a very worrying situation,” Tun Khin, a former refugee who fled Myanmar in the 1990s and is now president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, told The Globe and Mail. “There are women and children hardly surviving.”

A response plan put together by the UN calls for US$876-million this year for the Rohingya. As of July, roughly a quarter of that goal had been met. The majority of donations have come from the United States and the European Commission, at US$90-million and US$37-million respectively. Jean-Pierre Godbout, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, said Ottawa has provided $7.54-million in humanitarian assistance for the Rohingya in Bangladesh so far this year, part of the $288.3-million Canada has pledged to spend from 2021 to 2024 as part of its Rohingya and Myanmar strategy.

Shanika Thomas, a Canadian midwife who recently returned from Cox’s Bazar, where she worked for Médecins Sans Frontières, said many births in the camps were already high-risk and malnutrition only made pregnancy complications more common. This often required sending women to hospitals outside the camps to receive blood transfusions and other emergency care, but doing so was made difficult by security checkpoints and bureaucracy.

“The longer I was there, the more angry I got,” Ms. Thomas told The Globe. “You wonder how far removed we must be for this to be happening. I don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel, and if anything, any light is getting darker at this point.”

This was a common sentiment among aid workers, refugees and advocates, who see little hope on the horizon. Almost every Rohingya will say they want to return to Myanmar, but what was already difficult before a February, 2021, coup has become almost impossible now, with Rakhine racked by fighting between the military and local, non-Rohingya ethnic armed groups. The junta has suggested Rohingya could be repatriated to “transit centres” and then newly built villages, but UN experts have condemned the plan, and most refugees see it as a non-starter.

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Rohingya refugees sit on a makeshift boat as they get interrogated by the Border Guard Bangladesh after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, at Shah Porir Dwip near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh on November 9, 2017.Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters

“The architects of the genocide are the ones currently in power,” said Tun Khin. “How can you ask people to return to the killing fields?”

U Aung Kyaw Moe, a Rohingya activist and deputy minister with Myanmar’s exiled National Unity Government, said the refugee crisis “requires a sustainable, durable solution, which can only be found with democracy in Myanmar.”

The NUG, formed by elected lawmakers and officials ousted by the 2021 coup, has promised to end discrimination against the Rohingya and grant them citizenship. This is a major departure from the policies of the previous National League for Democracy government, which long refused to even use the term “Rohingya,” referring to them instead as “Muslims” or “Bengalis,” and was accused of complicity in the military-led genocide.

While some treated this shift with skepticism, particularly as it came when the NUG was desperately seeking support for the growing civil war in Myanmar, the appointment of U Aung Kyaw Moe in July was hailed by many as a major step forward.

“Rohingya deserve justice and a government that is ending impunity,” he told The Globe. “My mandate covers the accountability process and engagement with Rohingya. It is vital we bring them into the conversation.”

He said a 1982 law that stripped the Rohingya of citizenship was “based on hatred, discrimination and exclusion, and we are a government working toward inclusion.”

But while the NUG and allied ethnic armies control about half of Myanmar, it’s not clear either side has what it will take to break the stalemate. The country’s economy has been devastated, and the instability has seen a recent boom in opium production, undoing years of progress, the UN warned earlier this year.

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In this Sept. 1, 2017, file photo, members of Myanmar's Rohingya ethnic minority walk past rice fields after crossing the border into Bangladesh near Cox's Bazar's Teknaf area.Bernat Armangue/The Associated Press

Hit with sanctions by the West, the junta has relied on support from China and Russia as it tries to repair relations with other Southeast Asian countries, most of whom condemned the coup and cut ties. The military recently partially pardoned Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s ousted civilian leader, though she remains under house arrest, likely indefinitely. At the same time, a state of emergency was extended for six more months, postponing elections that are due to be held when it ends.

For many Rohingya, any settlement in Myanmar will likely come too late. Food is running out, and education and employment opportunities are scarce. This desperate situation is compounded by the growing instability of the camps, as armed gangs and self-styled people’s militias fight for dominance. In July, Human Rights Watch warned of “surging violence” in Cox’s Bazar, citing dozens of incidents of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping and other abuses since January.

“There are murders every day,” one Rohingya community organizer said. “We fear to work openly, many human-rights defenders have been targeted.” The Globe is not identifying them owing to threats against their safety.

In a statement, Bangladesh’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said the government has “deployed thousands of police forces to improve the security situation in and around the camps.” It blamed the worsening situation on the “drastic reduction of humanitarian support, including food rations,” and called on countries such as Canada to help resettle more Rohingya refugees.

The community organizer said the growing violence had led many young people to flee, with some even crossing back into Myanmar, while others have turned to human traffickers, who have long preyed on the Rohingya.

In the past, many refugees died when overcrowded boats sank in the Indian Ocean, while others have been held for ransom by traffickers in camps in Thailand and other transit countries. Those who do make it to Malaysia and Indonesia often find themselves trapped and unable to work, swapping one desperate situation for another.

“The traffickers went quiet for a few years, but they’re ramping up activity again,” said Kaamil Ahmed, a journalist and author of I Feel No Peace: Rohingya Fleeing Over Seas and Rivers. He said it was understandable why many refugees are willing to take the risk however.

“The camps were never a good place to live, but there was a point where they offered some relief, and people were grateful to just have that. But now there’s not really shelter, there’s no food and not even safety. There’s nothing there for them.”

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