Aid agencies warn of impending catastrophe affecting up to 200,000 refugees from Myanmar
Rohingya refugees face monsoon wrath in Bangladesh camps
After surviving a state campaign of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh now face the wrath of a South Asian monsoon that aid agencies warn could spark a new catastrophe for the Muslim ethnic group.
Around 700,000 Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh after a campaign of religious persecution, settling in camped, flood-prone camps now at risk from the seasonal monsoon and the heavy rain and landslides it has caused. Most arrived from Myanmar’s Rahkine state following a coordinated state campaign the US has described as ethnic cleansing.
Aid agencies say that around 200,000 Rohingya, more than half of them children, are threatened by the conditions. Both the UN and host government Bangladesh have received criticism for what has been viewed as an inadequate response to the impending crisis.
Heavily-populated and low-lying Bangladesh has struggled to find room for the refugees, most of whom now live in bamboo and tarpaulin shelters in sprawling hillside camps on national forest land.
As of June 14, the UN had reported one death - a young child - in the monsoon. But Myo Thant, a 25-year-old Rohingya refugee from Maungdaw in Rakhine, said a dozen refugees had been killed in landslides since rains began last week.
“People are feeling so sad and scared,” he said, speaking from Balukhali camp.
“What people were worried about is happening in front of their eyes. The international community and help from aid workers is needed urgently to help us survive this situation.”
Due to a shortage of available land, the government of Bangladesh has offered up low-lying but hilly sections of national forest for the camps.
“It’s the best they were able to offer at this time,” said Lynette Nyman, a communications delegate for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “I can’t think what other options there would have been.”
Much of the land in the camps has been deforested by refugees seeking wood for cooking fires, and rains are now washing away the sandy soil. Landslides are destroying shelters and roads and flooding latrines, creating a health risk. The monsoon rains also increase the threat of water-borne diseases such as cholera, putting the inhabitants not only at risk of displacement, but infection.
According to UNICEF, almost 900 shelters, 15 water points, over 200 latrines, two health facilities it supports and two food distribution sites have been damaged or destroyed in the camps. Most roads into the camps have been flooded.
“The land itself is the most dangerous part of this situation,” said Ms Nyman, speaking from District Camp 4 in Cox's Bazar, a town on the southeast coast of Bangladesh.
Aid agencies and the government of Bangladesh, who both had foreknowledge of the likely effects of the monsoon rains, have come under fire for not acting faster to flood-proof the vulnerable camps.
“The humanitarian response, including preparation for the monsoon season, has been significant and substantial – but it has also been hamstrung by a number of obstacles and lack of effective management and coordination by the Government of Bangladesh and the United Nations system,” said Daniel Sullivan of advocacy group Refugees International.
“Failure to overcome these challenges is unnecessarily putting lives at risk.”
With rains expected to continue until September, humanitarians are issuing urgent warnings for the camps to be made safe for inhabitants before disaster strikes again in the coming months.
“The problem now is not one of money, it’s one of de-congesting extremely overcrowded settlements which are well below emergency standards for camps,” said Caroline Gluck, a public information officer for the UN’s refugee agency in Bangladesh.
“The more it gets waterlogged, the more we’re going to see these problematic things become worse,” she continued. “It’s a race against time.”