‘In every camp there’s a disaster’: Monsoon rains in Bangladesh worsen conditions for the Rohingya

Since Monday, heavy rains have battered Cox’s Bazar in eastern Bangladesh, home to nearly one million Rohingya refugees. The flooding and landslides resulting from the monsoon have left more than 5,000 people without shelter, according to the UN, and six refugees have been confirmed dead. NGOs are struggling to keep up with the disaster response.

Heavy rains submerged shelters in some parts of the Cox’s Bazar Rohingya refugee settlement on July 27.
Heavy rains submerged shelters in some parts of the Cox’s Bazar Rohingya refugee settlement on July 27. © Ro Yassin Abdumonab

The Rohingya people, a persecuted Muslim minority, live in makeshift shelters – made of tarpaulin and bamboo – thousands of which have been destroyed or damaged by an estimated 300 landslides since the rains began. The flooding has also impacted mosques and graveyards. Following two days of severe flooding, more than 14,000 people are now living in damaged, waterlogged shelters, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.

A video posted on July 27 on Twitter shows the extent of the flooding in some parts of the camp.
Photos posted on Twitter on July 27 show the aftermath of a landslide in the Camp 10 section of the settlement.

Water levels in some parts of the settlement exceeded a metre, completely submerging low-ground shelters and blocking off access roads into the camps. 

Many of the Rohingya who live in the Cox’s Bazar camps, the world’s largest refugee settlement, fled a 2017 military crackdown in neighbouring Myanmar.

‘In the four years I have lived here, I’ve never seen rains like this’

Ro Yassin Abdumonab is a Rohingya freelance photographer who has been documenting the disastrous situation in the camp.

There are many people living in the low-ground areas, in the valleys, and in very weak shelters. On the hillsides, the shelters are not well-built, that’s why they got destroyed. The important thing is that there is no way for the water to drain properly. The water can’t move from one place to another, it stopped in the camp areas and just became bigger and bigger. 

In the four years I have lived here, I’ve never seen rains like this year. There are a total of 34 camps, and in every one, there is a disaster, whether it’s floods, landslides, soil erosion, et cetera.

Many people had already moved to places where they feel more safe, like secular centres, some of the places that are higher up. Others moved to stay with their relatives. But some people also had to stay starving, without any food.

The damage has posed a significant risk to those in the camps, whose living situation was already precarious. Recurrent fires have impacted the settlement in recent months, leaving tens of thousands of people homeless. The Covid-19 pandemic has also contributed to increased food insecurity among Rohingyas.

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Members of the Rohingya Youth Association, which is run by Rohingya refugees to promote youth empowerment, have mobilised to distribute food to victims of the floods.

Members of the Rohingya Youth Association distributed dry food to victims of flooding. Photos posted on Facebook July 27.

‘Half of the camp’s population will be affected’

Khin Maung is the founder and president of the Rohingya Youth Association. He fears that continuing bad weather will pose a catastrophe for residents of the camps.

The people whose shelters have already been destroyed have gone to stay with other people whose shelters were not destroyed. They went to stay with family members, relatives, friends. But the shelters are very small so the whole family does not have enough space to house the additional family members coming to live with them.

It’s still not clear when the shelters could be rebuilt again. But the people are trying by themselves to rebuild. If this continues happening in the long term, like for a week of continuously heavy raining, half of the population will be affected by this natural disaster. It will be a huge risk in the future for our people. 

The NGOs responsible in the camps are not properly working to prepare for the monsoon rains. This is the responsibility of NGOs but there has been poor management inside of the camps. 

“The camps have been devastated by fires, flash floods, life-threatening landslides and Covid, at a time when aid agencies are severely restricted from operating in their full capacity,” said Imrul Islam, Bangladesh advocacy manager for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), one of the NGOs operating at the camps, in an interview with the FRANCE 24 Observers team. 

Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions have forced NGOs to significantly limit their capacities in the Rohingya camps, only carrying out activities deemed “critical” or “essential.” Operations in several sectors have been limited or ceased altogether, and the number of staff working in the camps has been greatly reduced. 

The UN refugee agency UNHCR prepared for the monsoon season by distributing tie-down kits to reinforce shelters and training Rohingya volunteers in water safety and emergency response. 

Heavy rains are expected to continue for several days. UNHCR estimates that more than 5,000 people have been displaced from their shelters since the rains began, and at least six refugees have been confirmed dead in the flooding and landslides.