Rohingya refugees flee with solar panels to power phones

UKHIYA, BANGLADESH When Rohingya refugees began arriving in Bangladesh, after violence erupted in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state in August, local residents were puzzled to see some toting small solar panels on their shoulders.

"They were carrying solar panels with them, I was surprised. I would never do that in such a situation," Mr Jashim Uddin, a tea stall owner said.

Many reported making an arduous trek lasting between five and 15 days along hilly and waterlogged roads - but the hazardous journey did not prevent them from carrying the solar panels with them.

"This solar panel saved my life," said Mr Ayatullah, 18, once a shopkeeper in Myanmar and now a resident of the Thaingkhali refugee camp in Bangladesh.

He had to avoid Myanmar's army when he fled the country.

"They were killing everyone they came across. We had to depend on information from our people about the safe route, and a mobile phone was needed for that. This solar panel helped us to charge the mobile phone," he added.

Refugees used the panels, each the size of a laptop computer and fitted with a battery and a small light, to charge mobile phones and provide light at night on the jungle roads to Bangladesh, they said.

Mr Mohammad Yaser, another refugee, said that solar panels were cheaper in Myanmar than in Bangladesh, with a 20-watt panel costing 20,000 kyat (S$15). In Bangladesh, an equivalent panel costs eight to 12 times as much. Many of the refugees said they knew about this price difference and it was another reason to take their panels with them.

Security concerns also were a worry.

"When we arrived in Bangladesh, we had to stay on the street for the first few days.

"We powered lights with the solar panel and the light made us feel safe," said Mr Abdur Jaher, 45, who fled with his wife and their five children.