Monsoon causing havoc in the largest refugee camp in the worldThe monsoon is raging in Bangladesh where the largest refugee camp in the world is located. It is home to around one million Rohingya people, a persecuted minority. Families that have already lost everything they had are now at risk again. DRC’s Head of Emergency fears a catastrophe within the catastrophe.
People look up to the skies nervously. The clouds shift and change colour from a milky white to a dark grey. A sudden thunderclap signals the inevitable – the rainy season is here and within a couple minutes the heavy rain drops hammer the hundreds of thousands of tarpaulins that make up what little roof and wall these home-to-a-million shacks have. As the skies open up and flow over the camp, the yellow dust roads morph into muddy streams, devouring everything in their path.
Many have lost their homes ever since the monsoon started a month ago, some because of the violent landslides, some because of the heavy showers.
28 year old Arfah fears that her shack will disappear next time rain and storms ravage the camp. She is a single parent and arrived at the camp last September with her daughters aged five and nine, her son aged 15, and her mother. Arfah explains that the family fled Myanmar after witnessing how her aunt’s house was set on fire while the family was still inside. The fire claimed all of their lives. A short while before, Arfah’s husband was picked up by the military. She has not seen him since.
Arfah reached Bangladesh safely with her mother and children, but now – barely a year later – she once again fears for their lives. The rainy season has begun and during a storm, a peg holding the roof dislodged and struck her mother in the eye. She now has difficulty seeing and most of the time, she stays inside the shack. This means that Arfah has even more to do when it comes to looking after her children, fetching water and making sure that they have food if the rains suddenly flood the primitive pathways. The thing is worries most about, however, is her children.
”In Myanmar we had a robust house so during the monsoon I would keep my children inside. We also had access to a storm shelter in case of cyclone warnings. Our shack here is very light weight, and I fear that the roof will blow away or collapse during the heavy storms. We are completely in God’s hands,” she sighs.
Head of Emergency: ”The situation could be catastrophic”
Arfah is not the only one that fears the monsoon will have consequences in the enormous refugee camp.
“There are to scenarios. One is that the monsoon will turn the entire area into one giant mud bath, and this brings the risk of highly dangerous landslides and the spread of water-borne diseases. The second scenario is that the monsoon will also bring a cyclone that will blow away the shacks or completely destroy them. That would put us in a far worse situation – a catastrophe within the catastrophe,” says DRC Head of Emergency Christian Gad.
Head of Emergency Christian Gad has just visited the refugee camp at Cox’s Bazar. PHOTO: DRC.
The refugee camp is situated on hillsides and slopes of what used to be a nature reserve by the delta at the city of Cox’s Bazar near the border of Myanmar. This place gets more than three times the amount of rain ever year as Denmark and it comes over a 3-4 month period during the summer. That means that area is plagued by flooding and landslides every year and the UN estimates that a third of the refugee camp risk being flooded, that 85,000 people risk – once again – losing their homes, and that 23,000 living in the area are at risk of being hit by landslides.
The Rohingya have been persecuted in their native Myanmar for decades. Throughout the 90’s and 00’s, several hundred thousands fled to Bangladesh. Violent attacks on Rohingya villages during the fall of 2017 forced an additional 700,000 – as many people as are living in Copenhagen municipality – to flee. This made the camp the largest in the world in less than six months.
Since then, DRC, along with a number of international relief agencies, has worked non-stop to create an environment where the refugees are guaranteed the most basic help. The last few months everyone has been in an even higher gear to ready the camp and its inhabitants for the monsoon.
”The risk of highly dangerous floods and landslides is very high at the moment. Families risk drowning, being crushed to death or getting seriously sick because of water-borne diseases. Because of this, our people in the area are working around the clock to protect as many as possible from the coming monsoon,” explains DRC Head of Emergency Christian Gad.
Some of the things DRC are working on include creating an infrastructure and delivering bamboo, steel wire and tarpaulins so refugees can build and strengthen their homes – and thus shield them from the heavy storms and rain showers of the monsoon. We also help female single parents like Arfah who are not able to strengthen their shacks on their own.
FACTS: DRC in Bangladesh and Myanmar
DRC has worked to help internally displaced Rohingya’s in Myanmar for many years and responded quickly when hundreds of thousands were forcefully displaced and sought refuge in Bangladesh.
In the camp at Cox’s Bazar DRC is in charge of the day-to-day management of an area with around 150,000 refugees. We build solid roads, stairs and bridges that are not washed away by the rain, and we put up street lights so the residents – especially the women – can move about the camp safely. We also make sure that people have access to food and health clinics. As the monsoon gets nearer, DRC has also worked on strengthening the most vulnerable areas with sandbags and has evacuated thousands of refugees living in the areas where the risk of flooding was highest.