Wildlife risks add challenges to refugee response in Bangladesh

This is a summary of remarks by UNHCR Senior Environmental Coordinator, Andrea Dekrout – to whom quoted text may be attributed – at today’s press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

More than 670,000 Rohigya refugees have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh since 25 August. Bangladesh and its people have responded generously, providing safety, shelter and support to refugees. As a result of the crisis in Rakhine State, the Kutupalong refugee settlement in Cox’s Bazar now hosts more than 560,000 refugees. It is the world’s biggest refugee settlement. This in itself brings new challenges to the massive humanitarian response in Bangladesh that is under way.

The area now occupied by the Kutupalong refugee settlement has long been an important habitat for Asian Elephants. There are about 40 elephants in the area and they move between Bangladesh and Myanmar in search of food.

When wild elephants attempt to pass through the camp they inevitably come into contact with people, which is where the danger arises. Tragically ten refugees have been killed by frightened elephants inside the settlements. Other people have been injured and lost the little property they had. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency is saddened by these incidents and we are working hard to prevent further deaths and damage.

To protect refugees from more dangerous encounters we have teamed up with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). IUCN has decades of experience working with communities in Bangladesh to help them live safely alongside wild elephants.

UNHCR is partnering with IUCN to bring about safe coexistence with wildlife in the refugee settlements. One great project that is already in action is the creation of Elephant Response Teams (ERTs). These are groups of trained people who know how to respond appropriately to an approaching elephant and who can deter it from entering the camp and keep everyone safe.

There are now already 17 ERTs on the watch in the camp and one team had their first success only two days after being formed. In the long term, however, UNHCR and IUCN would like to more partners to join us to help address the underlying causes of dangerous encounters with elephants and other wildlife.

Actions like the restoration of forest habitats globally are not just conservation efforts, but help to protect people, their livelihoods and wellbeing in the long term. UNHCR hopes to see more support for taking these kinds of interventions in humanitarian contexts globally.

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