Rohingya refugees sure to pay the price as Monsoon season approaches in Bangladesh

By Ceci Sturman, Crisis Campaigns Intern, Amnesty International USA

This is going to be a catastrophe, no matter what.

The world has watched one of the most tragic contemporary examples of massive ethnic cleansing, now totaling over 680,000 Rohingya refugees forced to flee Myanmar. Now, with Mother Nature ramping up in preparation for monsoon season, things are about to get a lot worse.

Aid workers and climate scientists warn that the first storms of Bangladesh’s monsoon season could come as early as April. The storms will very likely hit the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, in south-east Bangladesh, holding more than 600,000 refugees.

The entire camp, formerly fruitful of trees and vegetation, is now comprised almost entirely of miles and miles of sandy, dusty hills with steep slopes at 40–45 degree angles, dry and barren. All former vegetation was stripped by refugees, desperate for fuel and materials for shelter. This desolate set up truly appears vulnerable to any significant weather change — an article by the New York Times claims that Cox’s Bazar is an “ecologically fragile area potentially made more precarious by climate change”.

The storms of early April are infamously known in Bangladesh as kalboishakhi, or,“evil summer”.

So first, the evil summer will turn the dry dirt of the camp into mud, which will turn into mudslides, and then will come landslides and catastrophic flash floods.

Climate experts predict that the sheer number of refugees condensed into this fragile area basically guarantees massive disaster — “We can definitely see how this is going to be a catastrophe, no matter what,” said Mélody Braun, who studies risk reduction strategies at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University. With high slopes and people everywhere, danger is guaranteed.

Not only will basic mobility in and around the camps be an issue for refugees and aid-workers, with mudslides making the ground too slippery and dangerous to walk on, shelters are vulnerable, food and supply distribution is at risk, access to clean water will be challenging, and diseases are incredibly likely to ensue.

These furious monsoons, along with other natural disasters and weather patterns, continuously target the most vulnerable of Earth’s citizens. Recently, floods in coastal India and Bangladesh as well as devastating droughts in East Africa, volcanic eruptions in Indonesia, and tsunamis in Japan (just to name a few) have proven this phenomena surrounding natural disasters and impoverished communities; with fewer roads, poor infrastructure, and limited access to clean water, the effects of natural disasters have a greater detrimental impact on these communities.

The UNHCR claims that at least 100,000 Rohingya refugees, or roughly one in six people living in the camp, are in grave danger in the upcoming monsoon season.

Myriam Burger, health adviser in Cox’s Bazar city, claims “The potential for a new and deadly health emergency is very real. A quarter of all toilets in the camps are expected to be damaged by the monsoon rains.” When the latrines overflow, sewage will wash into the drinking water supplies of hundreds of thousands of refugees, making the risk of cholera and other waterborne diseases extremely high.

The Government of Bangladesh has acknowledged the risk of refugees to Cox’s Bazar, and has committed to addressing these concerns. Camp coordinators and numerous NGOs are working tirelessly to set up an emergency preparedness group to improve shelter sustainability and mitigate potential damage, but it will likely be impossible to provide safety for all.

As monsoon season happens every year, this impending crisis to come isn’t a new realization, Cox’s Bazar was always identified as an unsustainable ecological home. Ultimately, however, refugee camps are never intended to be permanent nor have any perfect solutions been presented.

This problem deserves a solution and accountability, but the blame should not be directed towards Bangladesh, nor the Cox’s Bazar camp coordinators, nor Mother Nature, nor the refugees. Each and every day, many of the areas the Rohingya used to call home are being burned, bulldozed, and built over, leaving fewer and fewer places for them to return to.

These refugees deserve to be back, safely, in their homes.

Let more attention be brought to the horrific plight of the Rohingya refugees, soon to be compounded by environmental disaster, and let this problem remind us of how unsustainable refugee camps ultimately are. More local, national, and international effort needs to be directed at what we CAN control immediately, which is ending the violence and persecution in Myanmar pressuring the violence and persecution we CAN control to end immediately, so that the refugees can return.


1. Urge your member of Congress to stand on the right side of history by co-sponsoring this urgently needed, bipartisan legislation: The Burma Human Rights and Freedom Act of 2017 (S.2060). Send a message to your representatives and learn more here.

2. Sign Amnesty International’s petition to demand that the Commander in Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing immediately end the military’s campaign of violence and human rights abuses here.

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