Nowhere to run for Rohingya refugees as monsoon arrives

Published 18.07.2018 00:00

The hill on which the young woman's shelter is being built is so unstable that the earth crumbles under your feet. The threat of landslides is so dire that her neighbors have evacuated. Though living here could spell doom as the monsoon rains fall, she will live here anyway. For Mustawkima, a Rohingya woman who fled Myanmar for the refugee camps of neighboring Bangladesh, there is no other option. Hers is a dilemma repeated over and over for many of the 900,000 Rohingya refugees living in ramshackle huts across this unsteady landscape: With the long-dreaded monsoon season now upon them, they have run out of places to run.

For months, officials raced to relocate the most at-risk families to safer areas that had been bulldozed flat, but there simply isn't enough available land. Most refugees believe it is too dangerous to return to Myanmar, where the military launched a brutal campaign of violence against the minority Rohingya Muslims last year. And so, as the rains begin to flood parts of the camps, many Rohingya find themselves trapped — by geography, by poverty and by fear.

The bamboo shelter on the crumbling hillside will be Mustawkima's third attempt at finding a home in the camps. She has had to do everything on her own; Her husband was killed when the military stormed their village in August 2017. Families living in five shelters on the hill recently evacuated, she says. She can only hope that her relatives will protect her and her children when the worst of the rains arrive.

The most intense rains are expected over the next few months, though heavy downpours began pummeling the camps in June. There have already been more than 160 landslides, 30 people injured and one toddler killed, according to the Inter Sector Coordination Group, or ISCG, which oversees the aid agencies in the camps.

More than 200,000 people are living in areas considered at risk of landslides and flooding, according to the ISCG. Around 34,000 refugees have been relocated to other areas, with some moving into sturdier shelters further away from the hills.

Beyond the landslides and flooding, there are worries about waterborne diseases like cholera. Some of the latrines are piled high with fly-riddled excrement, which seeps out the sides during downpours. Water pumps are generally just a few meters away — worse, some are located downhill.

Aid workers have cleaned out thousands of latrines. Children are receiving identity bracelets in case they are separated from parents in the flooding. Families have received extra materials to fortify their shelters. Trenches have been dug to try and redirect floodwaters.

Ultimately, though, the topography of the camps is the biggest problem. The trees that once covered the hills have been cut down to make room for shelters, and the roots dug up for firewood. That process has dramatically loosened the soil, which the rains turn into heavy mud that slips down the hillsides, burying anything in its path.

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