Rohingya crisis worsens with onset of Bangladesh’s cyclone season

Rohingya refugees wait at roadside for help near Kutupalong refugee camp, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh on Feb. 13, 2017. (Photo by Turjoy Chowdhury/Sipa USA via AP)

Cyclone season is right around the corner in Bangladesh, and tens of thousands of unregistered Rohingya Muslim migrants living in makeshift camps are at risk.

Since Myanmar’s military began its deadly crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in October, more than 74,000 people have crossed the border into Bangladesh, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates.

The recent influx adds to the 300,000 to 500,000 Muslims who have sought refuge in Bangladesh over the last 30 years. But, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), only about 33,000 are registered refugees living in official camps. The rest are living in overcrowded makeshift camps or host communities with limited infrastructure and public services.

“People are existing in very difficult circumstances,” Azmat Ulla, the head of the IFRC Bangladesh office, said in a press release. “Most don’t have access to regular medical services and they are not getting enough food or sufficient nutrition.”

“Shelter is also a big issue,” Ulla added. “Many are living in sub-standard temporary structures. We need to scale up our support, particularly as there will be additional challenges ahead with the onset of the flood and cyclone season.”

The IFRC launched an emergency appeal on Monday before flood and cyclone season hits in April. The relief organization hopes to raise $3.2 million for food aid, shelter materials, clean water, sanitation and health care for 25,000 of the new arrivals over a nine-month period.

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According to the IFRC, Bangladesh Red Crescent Society volunteers will also be trained to provide psycho-social support to the migrant families as they grapple with the emotional distress of traumatic experiences in Myanmar and an uncertain future in Bangladesh.

A recent U.N. report found the “likely commission of crimes against humanity” in the military’s crackdown on Rohingya communities after an insurgent attack on Oct. 9. But even before the security operation, the 1.1 million Rohingya Muslim population was denied citizenship and basic rights, because the government and the state’s majority Buddhists considered them illegal migrants from Bangladesh, not an ethnic minority. Confined to squalid internally displaced persons (IDP) camps or heavily guarded villages, they have been named among the most persecuted people in the world.

But in neighboring Bangladesh, where they are seeking refuge, their reception is chilly as well. Local residents and leaders complain that Rohingya migrants are taking their jobs and increasing the drug trade.

“Local population, local leaders are extremely unhappy about this influx,” H.T. Imam, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s political adviser, said, according to Reuters. “They displace laborers by undercutting locals. Ya ba [methamphetamine]trade is flourishing due to them.”

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Instead, Bangladesh wants to move them to an island called Thengar Char that only emerged from the ocean 11 years ago, floods at high tide and disappears completely for three months every year during monsoon season. It’s currently uninhabited except by a handful of water buffalo and pirates and criminals who make use of it occasionally. There are no roads, no fresh water, no cell service. It would take years – and lots of money – to make the island inhabitable.

In the meantime, the Rohingya continue to face an uncertain and bleak future. An announcement by Myanmar’s de facto leader, Nobel laureate Aun San Suu Kyi, that she would reconsider granting citizenship to Rohingya was met with large protests last week. Those who have fled Myanmar are also being crossed off official household lists, leaving them legally unable to return.

Those who stay put will soon face cyclones and floods, which usually causes mass evacuations along Bangladesh’s coast and widespread crop and property damage. In their makeshift camps, the Rohingya will once again be hit the hardest.

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.