Following a targeted campaign of violence by Myanmar military, police, and local militias, more than half a million Rohingya refugees have fled to neighboring Bangladesh since August 2017, joining thousands of others living in overcrowded settlement camps in Teknaf. To accommodate this mass influx of refugees, forestland is razed to build spontaneous settlements, resulting in an enormous threat to wildlife habitats, biodiversity, and entire ecosystems in the region. Although reports indicate that this rapid and vast expansion of refugee camps in Teknaf is causing large scale environmental destruction and degradation of forestlands, no study to date has quantified the camp expansion extent or forest cover loss. Using remotely sensed Sentinel-2A and -2B imagery and a random forest (RF) machine learning algorithm with ground observation data, we quantified the territorial expansion of refugee settlements and resulting degradation of the ecological resources surrounding the three largest concentrations of refugee camps—Kutupalong–Balukhali, Nayapara–Leda and Unchiprang—that developed between pre- and post-August of 2017. Employing RF as an image classification approach for this study with a cross-validation technique, we obtained a high overall classification accuracy of 94.53% and 95.14% for 2016 and 2017 land cover maps, respectively, with overall Kappa statistics of 0.93 and 0.94. The producer and user accuracy for forest cover ranged between 92.98–98.21% and 96.49–92.98%, respectively. Results derived from the thematic maps indicate a substantial expansion of refugee settlements in the three refugee camp study sites, with an increase of 175 to 1530 hectares between 2016 and 2017, and a net growth rate of 774%. The greatest camp expansion is observed in the Kutupalong–Balukhali site, growing from 146 ha to 1365 ha with a net increase of 1219 ha (total growth rate of 835%) in the same time period. While the refugee camps’ occupancy expanded at a rapid rate, this gain mostly occurred by replacing the forested land, degrading the forest cover surrounding the three camps by 2283 ha. Such rapid degradation of forested land has already triggered ecological problems and disturbed wildlife habitats in the area since many of these makeshift resettlement camps were set up in or near corridors for wild elephants, causing the death of several Rohingyas by elephant trampling. Hence, the findings of this study may motivate the Bangladesh government and international humanitarian organizations to develop better plans to protect the ecologically sensitive forested land and wildlife habitats surrounding the refugee camps, enable more informed management of the settlements, and assist in more sustainable resource mobilization for the Rohingya refugees.
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