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Monsoon rain washes away Rohingya refugee shelters

Jun 12, 2018

Heavy monsoon rains beginning Saturday have severely affected Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Landslides amid heavy showers and strong winds have damaged more than 100 shanties on hill slopes at the camps of Rohingya refugees in Ukhia and Teknaf sub-districts of Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

Local authorities have long warned of a looming natural disaster during the monsoon in the densely populated camps. The monsoon season runs from June to September.

According to UN agency for refugees, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), over 9,000 people have been affected so far. The number is expected to rise as the rains continue, they warn.

The rains that began with the arrival of the monsoon on Saturday have been devastating for the refugees living under temporary shacks of tarpaulins supported by thin bamboo and too weak to stand heavy rains and storms since they arrived in August last year. More than 30,000 camp residents are still living in areas considered to be at high risk of deadly flooding and landslides.

The Rohingya are a Muslim people from Buddhist majority Myanmar and are considered the world's most persecuted minority. They fled Myanmaar following targetted violence, also described as a genocidal attack in 2017 and fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, which is now is home to over 700,000 Rohingya Refugees, more than their numbers in Myanmar, the country of their origin.

“The situation in the camps is growing more desperate with every drop of rain that falls,” Manuel Pereira, IOM's Emergency Coordinator in Cox’s Bazar, told UN News. "You have close to one million people living on hilly, muddy terrain with no trees or shrubs left to hold the ground in place. People and their makeshift shelters are being washed away in the rains,” he added, explaining the less than basic environment in the district in south-east Bangladesh where the refugees have settled.

The IOM official said the organisation is “working against the clock” to secure road access and drainage, and to improve preparations for more heavy rain to come.

The UN agency's officials warn that risks remain huge, given the vast size and the nature of the makeshift camps.

"It's just the beginning and the entire monsoon season is ahead of us. Some people have been relocated but the majority are still living under risk," the local Daily Star newspaper quoted a community leader, Mohammad Mohibullah, as saying.

The voice finds an echo in what other humanitarian actors have been saying for the past few months.

"Heavy rain will also quickly transform some of the low lying areas of the Rohingya camps into flooded and unhealthy swamp areas that will likely lead to deadly water-borne disease outbreaks," Oxfam's Rohingya Response Advocacy Manager Dorothy Sang had said following an initial downpour over a month ago.

"Once we start treating people with symptoms such as severe diarrhea, it is already too late," she said. What we need is a focus now on the prevention of disease outbreaks."

Relief experts in the camps are particularly worried about losing on the gains made in the areas of water, sanitation and hygiene, once the monsoon rains become incessant. An earlier risk analysis conducted by UN Agencies had estimates that floods and landslides could damage over a quarter of the latrines, putting pressure on the remaining latrines. Besides, it will also impact the sources of drinking water provided with much scarce resources.

The treatment of fecal waste, doesn't in any case offer much to write home about. For instance, there have been reports detailing how camp residents hare having to physically port barrels of sludge to a British Red Cross-run fecal sludge management site -- which is neither dignifying, nor sustainable.

Agencies, however, seem more concerned about visas for international development workers -- something that the Bangladeshi relief workers resent, given especially their much sought expertise on water, sanitation and hygiene across the globe.

While on a visit to Canada currently, Bangladesh's Sheikh Hasina, for instance, has had to assure Canada’s Special Envoy on Myanmar, Bob Rae, that matters regarding issuance of visa for foreign relief workers in Rohingya shelter camps will be taken up by her government.

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