Satellite images show sprawling Rohingya refugee camps

Massive, makeshift refugee camps are sprawling over farms and open land in southern Bangladesh as more than 420,000 Rohingya Muslims flee violent attacks in their predominantly Buddhist homeland of Myanmar.

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This combination of satellite photos provided by DigitalGlobe, Sept. 16, 2017, left, and May 25, 2017, right, show the thousands of temporary shelters that have been erected in the Kutupalong area of Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. The photos show refugee camps in Bangladesh growing dramatically since Rohingya Muslims began fleeing violence last month in their nearby homeland of Myanmar. (DigitalGlobe via AP)


In a matter of weeks, thousands of temporary shelters have been erected in the Bangladesh district of Cox's Bazar, according to new before-and-after satellite images released exclusively to The Associated Press on Wednesday.

"Tents have sprung up all over the area. It's a dramatic expansion," said Stephen Wood, a senior imagery analyst at Westminster, Colorado-based DigitalGlobe, which used high-resolution cameras in space to take photos of the camps for the AP.

One photo showed a long traffic jam of cars going through the area, possibly relief workers on their way in, or government workers trying to install water or shelter systems.

The images offer an expansive view of what journalists, government agencies and aid groups have been seeing firsthand. Existing facilities are overwhelmed by streams of desperate families walking overland or clambering out of boats because they fear for their lives following attacks that some world leaders call ethnic cleansing.

Until now, the assumption was that the size of existing refugee camps had doubled in the past few weeks. A Sept. 16 satellite image of just one camp, Kutupalong, shows it stretched about 3.9 square kilometers (1.5 square miles), about four times its former size.

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This Sept. 16, 2017 satellite photo provided and labeled by DigitalGlobe, shows the thousands of temporary shelters that have been erected in the Kutupalong area of Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Before-and-after satellite images released to The Associated Press show refugee camps in Bangladesh growing dramatically since Rohingya Muslims began fleeing violence last month in their nearby homeland of Myanmar. (DigitalGlobe via AP)


The landscape continues to change, however. In recent days Bangladeshi officials have been ordering some refugees out of Kutupalong camp and into Balukhali camp, a few kilometers (miles) away. DigitalGlobe's imagery showed that Balukhali has expanded dramatically as well. The images don't capture every makeshift home, which some Rohingya don't need because they've been taken in by Bangladeshi families.

The United Nations has airlifted in thousands of shelters. The large white plastic tarps, held up with metal tent poles, have no floors but do offer respite from the rain. And there aren't nearly enough. Other arrivals build bamboo structures and buy thin plastic sheeting at local markets to stay out of the rain. Multiple families cluster under each of them, lacking food and cooking pots, blankets or even spare clothes.

The U.N. says that unlike formal refugee camps, these new sites lack drinking water, toilets, soap or buckets.Many anticipated this crisis.

When Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party was elected in 2016 after more than five decades of military rule, the political shift offered a short, tense window of peace. But that quickly ended as Suu Kyi, a former political prisoner and champion of human rights, failed to protect Rohingya from violence.

Last year, military attacks set off by the killings of nine police officers at border posts prompted tens of thousands of Rohingya to flee into Bangladesh, and four new makeshift settlements formed. Security forces responded to another wave of insurgent attacks late last month with a sweeping crackdown that drove hundreds of thousands more Rohingya from their homes, which in many cases were burned.

Although they have lived in Myanmar for generations, Rohingya are generally barred from citizenship in the nation of 50 million, and instead live as some of the most oppressed people in the world.

Rohingya arriving in Bangladesh this week have told the U.N. that more than 100,000 more people are still waiting to cross the border into Bangladesh.

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FILE - In this Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017, file photo, Rohingya Muslims, who crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, wait during distribution of food items near Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh. Before-and-after satellite images released to The Associated Press show refugee camps in Bangladesh growing dramatically since Rohingya Muslims began fleeing violence last month in their nearby homeland of Myanmar. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin, File)


On Wednesday, the Trump administration pledged $32 million in humanitarian aid — food, medical care, water, sanitation and shelter. Of that, $28 million will go to the Bangladesh side and $4 million to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

"We are urging the Burmese government to control the violence in the area, to cease attacks against civilians, and to create safe conditions so that the Rohingya that have fled feel safe to return," said acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Simon Henshaw.


Bangladesh truck carrying Rohingya Muslim aid crashes; 9 die

By ESTHER HTUSAN and JULHAS ALAM ,  Associated Press

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — A truck filled with aid for Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh veered off a road and fell into a ditch Thursday morning, killing at least nine aid workers, hours after another aid shipment in the refugees' violence-wracked home state in Myanmar was attacked by a Buddhist mob.

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Rohingya Muslims stand to receive food being distributed near Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. More than 500,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to neighboring Bangladesh in the past year, most of them in the last three weeks, after security forces and allied mobs retaliated to a series of attacks by Muslim militants last month by burning down thousands of Rohingya homes in the predominantly Buddhist nation. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)


Both shipments were from the International Committee of the Red Cross. Aid groups face different challenges on either side of the border: An influx of more than 420,000 refugees in less than a month in Bangladesh, and in Myanmar, government resistance and angry allegations from majority Buddhists that international organizations are favoring the long-persecuted Rohingya minority.

A Bangladeshi medical administrator, Aung Swi Prue, said six people died instantly in the truck crash near the border in southeastern Bandarban district. Three people died after reaching a hospital, and 10 others were injured and are receiving treatment.

ICRC spokeswoman Misada Saif said all of those killed were Bangladeshi workers hired to distribute food packages to 500 Rohingya families.

Saif said the truck belongs to the ICRC and Bangladesh Red Crescent Society and was operated by a supplier who has been working for the two agencies for last couple of weeks. She said agency officials are "very shocked and sad."

"Our thoughts are with the families of the dead. They were there to help the people who desperately need help," she said.

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Young Rohingya Muslims stand on a slope and stretch their arms out to receive food being distributed near Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. With Rohingya refugees still flooding across the border from Myanmar, those packed into camps and makeshift settlements in Bangladesh are desperate for scant basic resources and fights erupt over food and water. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)


The Rohingya exodus began Aug. 25, after Rohingya insurgent attacks on police set off a military crackdown.

Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands of homes have been burned in what many Rohingya have described as a systematic effort by Myanmar's military to drive them out. The government has blamed the Rohingya, even saying they set fire to their own homes, but the U.N. and others accuse it of ethnic cleansing.

Most refugees have ended up in camps in the Bangladeshi district of Cox's Bazar, which already had hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who had fled prior rounds of violence. Bandarban is a neighboring district where thousands of Rohingya also have fled.

The violence in Myanmar occurred just across the border in Rakhine state, where police said a Buddhist mob threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at officers Wednesday night as they tried to block Red Cross supplies from being loaded onto a boat. The vessel was headed to an area where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have chased from their homes. No injuries were reported and police detained eight of the attackers.

Dozens of people arrived at a jetty in the Rakhine state capital, Sittwe, as a boat was being loaded bottled water, blankets, mosquito nets, food and other supplies. As the crowd swelled to 300, they started throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at the officers, who responded by firing into the air, said police officer Phyo Wai Kyaw.

The government of the predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million said police and several monks showed up to try to defuse tensions. The shipment ultimately was loaded and sent to northern Rakhine state.

Though Myanmar's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, told diplomats this week humanitarian assistance was being sent to those who remain in northern Rakhine, the government has blocked all U.N. assistance to the area, granting access to only the Red Cross.

Buddhists in Rakhine have accused international aid agencies of favoring Rohingya, a group who Myanmar and many of its people contend migrated illegally from Bangladesh.

"We are explaining to the community members who approached the boats about the activities of the Red Cross," said Maria Cecilia Goin, a communications officer at the ICRC in Yangon.

"It's important for them to understand that we are working in neutral and impartial way," she said, adding that the work is being done "with full transparency with the Myanmar authorities."

Suu Kyi's speech this week in Naypyitaw, the capital, defended her government's conduct in Rahkine state and avoided criticism of the military. The country's top general went a step further, traveling to northern Rakhine on Thursday to praise security forces for their "gallant" efforts to defend Myanmar.

At a meeting with military officials and their families in Buthiduang township, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Min Aung Hlaing said that more than a century ago when the area was a British colony, Rohingya — whom he referred to as "Bengalis" — were allowed to settle without restrictions.

"Later, the Bengali population exploded and the aliens tried to seize the land of local ethnics," Min Aung Hlaing said, according to his office's Facebook page. He described repeated army efforts since Myanmar independence in 1948 to "to crush the mujahedeen insurgents," including in 2012 and last fall.

"Race cannot be swallowed by the ground, but only by another race," he said. "All must be loyal to the state in serving their duties, so that such cases will never happen again."

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Esther Htusan contributed to this report from Yangon, Myanmar.