Start of rainy season exposes risks for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

Further downpours at Cox’s Bazar could leave refugees from Myanmar at risk of diseases, infections and mudslides

The first of much-feared rains fell on the Bangladeshi border town of Cox’s Bazar on Wednesday, bringing with it apprehension and the first signs of flooding in the camps hosting Rohingya refugees who have fled a violent crackdown in Myanmar.

An early morning downpour that fell on the flimsy bamboo and tarpaulin shacks of the sprawling camp marks the beginning of a rainy season which, it is feared, could put at least 150,000 lives at risk.

The first bout of rain lasted only an hour, but brought strong winds and left destruction in its wake. Sporadic bouts of rain are now predicted for the rest of the week, though the full monsoon rains and cyclonic storms will not hit properly until late June.

Nur Jahan, 27, who fled from Maungdaw in Myanmar, said his home had already been damaged by the first rainfall. “It was really dangerous because there was also a strong wind blowing around the camp and dust was coming into our homes,” he said.

“I was really worried. I thought my hut was going to be blown down by the wind. I was trying to save my ration cards because I thought if I lost those, we won’t be able to get our rations. The water was gathering on my roof and it almost caved in and at the same time I was worried about it blowing off.”

Jahan added: “If the rains continue like this, then my house and others are going to be destroyed. I’m worried about my children. Where are they going to stay during the monsoon?”

Since August 2017, over 700,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar, following a brutal military campaign of violence that saw villages razed to the ground, men killed and women sexually assaulted. Cox’s Bazar is now home to the most densely populated refugee camp in the world.

Described as the world’s most persecuted people, 1.1 million Rohingya people live in Myanmar. They live predominately in Rakhine state, where they have co-existed uneasily alongside Buddhists for decades.

Rohingya people say they are descendants of Muslims, perhaps Persian and Arab traders, who came to Myanmar generations ago. Unlike the Buddhist community, they speak a language similar to the Bengali dialect of Chittagong in Bangladesh.

The Rohingya are reviled by many in Myanmar as illegal immigrants and suffer from systematic discrimination. The Myanmar government treats them as stateless people, denying them citizenship. Stringent restrictions have been placed on Rohingya people’s freedom of movement, access to medical assistance, education and other basic services.

Violence broke out in northern Rakhine state in August 2017, when militants attacked government forces. In response, security forces supported by Buddhist militia launched a “clearance operation” that  ultimately killed at least 1,000 people and forced more than 600,000 to flee their homes. The UN’s top human rights official said the military’s response was "clearly disproportionate” to insurgent attacks and warned that Myanmar’s treatment of its Rohingya minority appears to be a "textbook example” of ethnic cleansing.

When Aung San Suu Kyi rose to power there were high hopes that the Nobel peace prize winner would help heal Myanmar's entrenched ethnic divides. But she has been accused of standing by while violence is committed against the Rohingya.

In 2019, judges at the international criminal court authorised a full-scale investigation into the allegations of mass persecution and crimes against humanity. On 10 December 2019, the international court of justice in The Hague opened a case alleging genocide brought by the Gambia.

Rebecca Ratcliffe

Fiona MacGregor, of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), who was on the ground in Cox’s Bazar, said: “Given the ground conditions and weather in the area, it is impossible to mitigate against all disaster.” Describing the camps in the aftermath of the first rainfall, she said there had already been shallow flooding and churned roads, highlighting the challenges for aid access that lay ahead.

She went on: “The fact that people in some parts of the camps today were having to wade through water after only a few showers is an indication of the kind of the difficult and dangerous ground conditions we will see far more of when monsoon proper arrives and which will also bring the risk of water-borne diseases and infections.”

Cox’s Bazar is known for having one of the highest rainfall totals in the country during monsoon season. Many of the overcrowded camps are also built on newly deforested hills, which are susceptible to mud landslides and flash flooding.

The Rohingya have been escaping a violent military crackdown in Myanmar.
The Rohingya have been escaping a violent military crackdown in Myanmar. Photograph: Hannah Mckay/Reuters

Bangladesh’s refugee relief and rehabilitation commissioner, Mohammad Abul Kalam, said they were trying to stabilise the slopes using sandbags and other techniques. “We have adopted elaborate plans to save the refugees from the risks of the natural disasters during the coming monsoon,” he said, adding that they hoped to relocate all those in high-risk areas within weeks.

“Around 90,000 of the refugees are living in very high-risk areas and we are planning to relocate them to safer areas on a priority basis. We are developing 700 to 800 acres of forest land on the west of Kutupalong camp, where they all will be relocated to a new, safer area.”

Speaking on Tuesday, Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, re-emphasised a controversial government plan to move 100,000 of the monsoon-vulnerable refugees to Bhasan Char, an uninhabited sediment island in the Bay of Bengal. However, the plans have prompted a backlash from aid agencies, who have raised concerns about living conditions and weather vulnerability of the proposed location, while refugees themselves have said they will refuse to go.

Kalam said the island was not yet ready to welcome the refugees. “It is being developed to make the place suitable for living. We hope within a month or two it will be ready,” he said.

Agencies such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the IOM and the World Food Programme, in cooperation with some Bangladeshi government agencies, are working to make the camps as resilient against the impending rains as possible. Refugees have also been attempting to prepare for the floods over the past few weeks, though the prospect has left many terrified.

Bangladesh rains map

Shafiqa, 25, who left Buthidaung in Myanmar, described how she had begun rebuilding her hut almost from scratch, digging up mud to fortify the weak frame of the bamboo and tarpaulin shelter.

“The winds are coming and people say they could break everything,” she said. “We haven’t been able to build our homes properly, so I’m terrified of the monsoon. There’s no one in the house to help me, my parents are old and it’s dangerous at night, so I’m just trying to strengthen my home by building these mud walls.”

Ali Johor, who crossed over from Rakhine to Bangladesh in September, was concerned the 10ft x12ft shack he lives in with nine other family members, built on the slope of a hill, would not be able to survive the rain. “I fear that one such storm could blow away my entire shack,” he said.

Shaikh Azizur Rahman contributed to this report


Hannah Ellis-Petersen, and Kaamil Ahmed in Cox's Bazar

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