Rohingya refugees escaped massacres in Burma. Now they face another deadly force: Monsoons.
By Jason Patinkin May 4 at 6:45 AM
BALUKHALI, Bangladesh — The refugee shoved sandbags into the edge of a cliff in a sprawling Bangladeshi camp, a likely futile effort to hold together the loose soil where his hut of bamboo and plastic sheets held a precarious perch.
Days earlier, the hillside broke a few feet away, sending down a cascade of earth. No one was hurt, but it was a wake-up call. “I cannot stay here. I have children,” said Hamit Hussein, a Rohingya Muslim who has lived in the camp since August. “The hill is collapsing in the dry season. If it rains even a little, it will be destroyed.”
In Bangladesh, the world’s largest refugee camp is literally falling apart. With the annual cyclone and monsoon seasons approaching this month and next, hundreds of thousands of refugees are now steeling themselves for the camp’s further collapse. But most, like Hussein, have nowhere else to go.
Since August, some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims from Buddhist-majority Burma have poured into a thin spit of land in southeastern Bangladesh following a brutal crackdown by Burma’s army, which the United Nations has called ethnic cleansing.
Rohingya survivors and human rights groups accuse the Burmese government of torching villages, raping women, and murdering civilians in response to a series of attacks by a small Rohingya insurgent group. Doctors Without Borders estimated in December that at least 6,700 were killed. Burma has denied many of the allegations.
Now the Rohingya face another threat. The Bangladeshi camps — carved out of elephant-infested jungle — have become overcrowded slums of flimsy shelters teetering on steep, unstable slopes. Aid groups warn the fast-approaching stormy seasons could prove deadly. Last year, before the latest influx of refugees, a cyclone damaged 70 percent of the shelters in the
“Our initial mapping study showed 120,000 at grave risk of floods and landslides,” said Fiona MacGregor, spokeswoman for the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration. But, she added: “Pretty much everyone is at risk to some extent.”
In recent weeks, the season’s first few squalls have turned valleys into swamps and shredded dozens of shelters. “The tarp was stripped off by wind and the house was destroyed. Dishes, my stoves, everything,” Rukiya Begum said while standing in the frame of her hut, a loose plastic sheet flapping overhead. “I’m afraid to stay here.”
The earth here is fine sand packed into hard dunes that disintegrate to the touch. Small landslides are common on the deforested slopes and have killed at least two children so far. Many areas have no proper drainage or access roads for ambulances. “The fact that it looks unprepared is absolutely how it really is,” said Tess Elias, Bangladesh director of the Danish Refugee Council, an aid group managing parts of the camps.With worse weather to come, Doctors Without Borders is stockpiling bandages and intravenous fluids for mass casualty events and warns of disease outbreaks if floodwaters overflow latrines, turning low-lying areas into festering pools of rainwater and human waste.
Rohingya refugees escaped massacres in Myanmar. Now they face another deadly force: Monsoons in Bangladesh. – The Washington Post
Marcella Kraay, the aid group’s project coordinator in the region, warned of outbreaks of acute watery diarrhea, also known as cholera: “It’s going to be humid, wet, unsanitary conditions.” For now, Bangladesh’s government has refused to allow refugees free movement, which might allow them to find safer places to live beyond the camp’s borders.
Aid workers complain that the authorities, wary of establishing long-term presence of hundreds of thousands of refugees in an already densely populated nation, have also mostly banned the use of stronger building materials like cement, relegating the refugees to homes of bamboo and plastic. But if the government appears inflexible, foreign aid groups suffer from their own troubles.
A March report by a consortium of British aid groups called the Disasters Emergency Committee described a “substandard” and “chaotic” response to the Rohingya refugee crisis, with a cumbersome bureaucracy amid confusion about which U.N. relief agency should be in charge.
Rohingya refugee workers flatten hills on the western edge of the Kutupalong camp in southeastern Bangladesh to make space for families to relocate to escape potential floods and landslides. (Jason Patinkin) Still, the biggest issue is a lack of space. So far, some 14,000 of the most vulnerable refugees have been moved to safer areas within the camp, but more land is needed for all at-risk people to find safe ground.
Work crews on the camp’s western boundary are flattening 123 acres for further relocations, but that space, meant to be finished by June, will hold only between 13,000 and 16,000 people. “That’s clearly not enough, but that’s where we are,” said Mark Pierce, head of the Save The Children aid group in Bangladesh.
Another option, floated by Bangladesh’s government, is to move 100,000 refugees to an island in the Bay of Bengal. The Bangladesh Navy is overseeing construction of what the government says will be a better home for the Rohingya.
But the plan is controversial. The island, called Bhasan Char, is more of a massive sandbar cut by canals and in constant flux amid shifting ocean currents. Serazul Mustafa, a Rohingya leader in the largest camp, called Kutupalong, said he feared the sea journey to the island would be dangerous.
In internal reports, first reported by Reuters and confirmed by The Washington Post, aid groups including the U.N.’s refugee agency raised concern the island might trap refugees and put them at risk of human trafficking.
Caroline Gluck, spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency in Bangladesh, said the agency had not yet visited Bhasan Char and so could not confirm if it was habitable. She called for an independent assessment of the island to ensure it is safe and said the refugees should have freedom of movement within the island and to and from the mainland.
Wherever land is made available, however, many refugees, traumatized by their first displacement from Burma, are refusing to move again. Kabir Ahmed said he declined a chance to move west, even though his home was under a crumbling wall, because he feared elephants and thieves near the camp’s outskirts.
Instead, he opted to shift his shelter just a few meters away, safe from the wall, but squeezed downhill from a latrine with no drain and above a stagnant wastewater ditch. “What can I say?” he said. “We were forced to flee here. We just need to deal with it.”
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