DHAKA, Bangladesh – The Bangladesh government in cooperation with local and international humanitarian agencies is taking steps to prepare the community of Rohingya refugees camped on the outskirts of Cox’s Bazar for the coming monsoon season.
Officials are also seeking to allay concerns among the refugees about a plan to move many of the Rohingya to an island in the Bay of Bengal, insisting that relocation to the site would be done on a voluntary basis.
Meanwhile, aid group Médecins Sans Frontières has warned that the refugees’ current shelter provisions were insufficient for extreme weather conditions and said it was bracing for “mass-casualty scenarios.”
Bangladesh disaster-management officials said they had already taken the necessary measures to cope with heavy rains and flash floods. Their main concern now is the damage that a cyclone would inflict upon the makeshift structures housing densely populated Rohingya camps in areas in Ukhiya and Tekhnaf sub-districts of Cox’s Bazar.
UN agencies have also initiated a number of special safety measures ahead of the rainy season.
A government survey found that 133,000 Rohingya people are at critical risk – the highest level – in the event of floods, cyclones and landslides.
Bangladesh, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and their partners are taking urgent steps to better protect nearly 80,000 people deemed at greatest risk of flooding in the area, and 23,000 threatened by landslides.
The UNHCR and other groups currently provide 80,000 families in the camp with bamboo poles and tarpaulins to construct flimsy shelters. However, the tarpaulins covering many shanties already require repairs, said Sirajul Mostafa, the chairman of a camp management committee at Kutupalang.
Habibul Kabir Chowdhury, head of the Bangladesh Disaster Management and Relief Ministry’s Rohingya unit, said he was more worried about cyclones than landslides and flash floods. “Our major concern is cyclones, although we have identified a number of facilities including schools for use as shelters in an emergency,” he said.
Kabir told The Irrawaddy that the government’s cyclone-warning system could provide five days’ notice ahead of a cyclone making landfall.
The Bangladesh Red Crescent Society has prepared an emergency contingency plan for the upcoming monsoon season. Some 300 volunteers have been trained in first aid, and search-and-rescue.
In June 2017, heavy monsoon rains triggered a series of landslides and floods in Rangamati, Chittagong and Bandarban, three hilly districts near Cox’s Bazar, the town currently hosting hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees. The slides and floods killed over 150 people.
According to ReliefWeb, which monitors global crises and disasters, Cox’s Bazar has been hit by cyclones every year for the past three years: Cyclone Mora in May 2017, Cyclone Roanu in May 2016, and Cyclone Komen in July 2015.
In Bangladesh, the pre-monsoon hot season, which brings some rain, usually lasts from March through May. The main monsoon season lasts from June through October, and often sees flooding.
Cyclones generally strike Bangladesh in March through July and September through December, with the greatest number of storms in May and October.
UNICEF, meanwhile, is providing GPS-enabled bracelets to around 250,000 Rohingya children so their families can trace them should they become separated during emergencies.
UNICEF Bangladesh spokesperson AM Sakil Faizullah told The Irrawaddy the agency aims to provide the bracelets to all children up to the age of 12.
“With the bracelet, anyone can be easily traced in any circumstances,” Sakil said. He hoped they would start distribution by May.
UNICEF officials said that 5,000 Rohingya children had already been separated from parents and relatives during the violence that forced them to leave Rakhine State. Many of these children were now roaming Cox’s Bazar in search of their loved ones.
From September to November 2017, the Bangladesh Social Services Department registered 36,373 Rohingya children who had been separated from at least one parent during the exodus. Some 7,771 had lost both parents.
Over 688,000 Rohingya have entered Bangladesh since Aug. 25, 2017, in what the UN describes as the world’s fastest-developing refugee emergency.
The field officer for Médecins Sans Frontières’ Bangladesh Mission, Mostafa Mohammad Sazzad Hossain, said, “The approaching monsoon rains and other natural hazards may lead to deaths in the camps, with hundreds of thousands of Rohingya and members of the host community at risk of disease outbreaks and aid disruptions. Current shelters and structures are unable to withstand extreme weather conditions such as heavy flooding or cyclones, and do not sufficiently meet the protection needs of the most vulnerable refugees. MSF is preparing for mass-casualty scenarios.
“MSF expects to see cases of injured people and likely fatalities resulting from heavy winds and landslides. Due to the poor infrastructure in the camp, access to our health posts and clinics will be even more difficult for patients, as well as healthcare staff. Access to safe drinking water is a priority and MSF is rehabilitating latrines and water distribution networks, as well as setting up bucket chlorination points.”
‘No forced relocations’
According to Agence France-Presse, authorities in Dhaka earlier said about 100,000 refugees from the persecuted Muslim minority would be shifted to an island in the Bay of Bengal where the Bangladesh Navy is building housing that can withstand cyclones.
A number of Rohingya community members told The Irrawaddy they are afraid of being shifted to the island, however.
“Yes, we know the fear of being shifted to Bhasanchar persists among the community… but, none will be taken there forcibly,” said Habibul Kabir, the Rohingya unit chief.
Kabir said officials would visit Bhasanchar along with representatives of humanitarian agencies in the first half of May to get a clear picture of the proposed relocation process.
Rohingya community leader Sirajul Mostafa said he had not officially been told about the relocations to Bhasanchar, but he had heard rumors.
“We have taken shelter here from persecution in our land. And, we are here [waiting] to return to our land,” he added.