No safe haven for Rohingya migrants during monsoon season

No safe haven for Rohingya migrants during monsoon season

Over 700,0000 Rohingya migrants crossed the border after fleeing persecution in Myanmar to Bangladesh where they are threatened by the impending monsoon season.

 

Ground conditions

In the largest population movement in the region to date, displaced Rohingya migrants settled in the impoverished coastal district of Cox Bazar, now the world’s largest refugee settlement. To cope with the rising influx of refugees, the Bangladeshi government deforested large swathes of lush state-owned reserve woodland. Migrants fragile shelters rest on these steep sandy slopes that will rapidly turn to mud when the rain arrives. Early showers have left residents wading through high waters, an indication of the likely severity of the situation when the season reaches its peak from June to September. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Dhaka University estimate that at least 100,000 lives will be at risk since about one third of the settlement is susceptible to extreme rainfall.

Over 80% of the country is floodplain, which has increased the intensity and length of natural disasters. Located at the top of the funnel-shaped Bay of Bengal, southern Bangladesh is also exposed to cyclones. The numbers typically affected are striking. A 1970 cyclone caused 300,000 fatalities, whilst another in 1991 left around ten million homeless.

The Bangladeshi government is especially stretched this season and is hastily preparing temporary camps on Thengar Char, a previously unsettled island. Aid agencies have expressed doubts about the living conditions at the proposed site and potential for greater exposure to adverse conditions. Government officials have since anonymously admitted that the location is uninhabitable. One refugee said, “no Rohingya is willing to move to that island. But we do not have a choice…We have been caught between the devil and the deep sea.

The UN would prefer to relocate migrants to higher ground to protect against drowning. Given the scarcity of dry land, it will not be possible to move the entire population. Consequently, parallel preparations are underway in cooperation with the government to secure infrastructure. This includes reinforcing footpaths and stabilising slopes to prevent excessive erosion or collapse. In a bid to upgrade camps, over 40,000 families have been trained in basic measures which include using sandbags to anchor down shacks and mud to fortify weak structures. Excavating clogged waterways to support the free flow of water through the Naf River, which marks the border between southeastern Bangladesh and western Myanmar is another priority.

Humanitarian bodies are acutely aware that the refugees stranded on remote hillsides may be left to coordinate emergency responses themselves. Severe conditions could create roads blocks, preventing aid vehicles from reaching parts of settlements. Public health is also in danger. Both communicable water and vector-borne diseases are likely to become widespread amongst those cut off from formal assistance. Around 60,000 newborns are expected over the coming year in the camps, just one indication of the scale of healthcare needs. To boost resilience, the UN is prepositioning food, medicines, installing heavy lifting machinery, and offering search and rescue training to enable refugees to undertake the necessary relief efforts.

 

Wider challenges

Although the Bangladeshi government has been widely commended for its willingness to accommodate the Rohingya migrants, it has come under criticism for its inflexibility in granting refugees formal status or citizenship rights. Notably, some settlements have existed since the 1970s. As a means to minimise integration with locals, militant checkpoints demarcate the camps. There is also a prohibition against building schools and Rohingya children are prevented from learning Bengali. This constrains monsoon-planning, as humanitarian bodies have been banned from pursuing prudent long-term programmes.

With the general election approaching and public sentiment for the refugees slipping, authorities have been hesitant to convey the permanence of the camps. Instead, they have urged Myanmar to take the refugees back. Whilst Myanmar has resisted the Bangladeshi government’s list of thousands of potential voluntary returnees on the basis of incomplete information. It claims that only 374 people could be accepted, without offering any concrete measures or timelines for their repatriation.

Even if this arrangement materialises, it would not provide a satisfactory solution for the effectively stateless Rohingya who would be confronted with hostile conditions in the Rakhine State. An investigation by Amnesty International indicates the complete reconstruction of the area to allow for the establishment of security bases. The placement of the same military personnel that carried out the indiscriminate crackdown which led to the exodus is a noticeably aggressive measure. Yet authorities insist that this bulldozing has been pursued to build new housing. Amnesty International dismisses the assertion that the chronic under-development in the area is being addressed to allow for the sustainable return of its former inhabitants. Instead, the Rakhine State is being reshaped in a highly securitized manner.

Looking ahead

At the conclusion of a visit to Bangladesh, the UN Security Council called for the Myanmar government to allow for the “safe, voluntary and dignified return” of refugees as one form of reparation. Meanwhile, aid agencies warn that supplies are at critical levels due to severe funding shortfalls. As the devastating monsoon season looms, multiple challenges persist in the region given the numbers of refugees and affected host communities in hazardous conditions and a lack of suitable land.

Categories: Insights, Security

About Author

Elif Rahemtulla

Elif Rahemtulla works in public policy. She specialises in Middle Eastern Studies, holding a BA from the School of Oriental and African Studies and an MA from King's College London.