In hotels and restaurants near the beach at Cox's Bazar in southeast Bangladesh, international and local aid workers sent to help the Rohingya in the world's largest refugee settlement talk nervously of the major challenge ahead, the weather.
Cox's Bazar was mainly known as Bangladesh's top local tourism spot, famed for the world's longest natural sea beach, until the 2017 arrival of thousands of Rohingya fleeing persecution in Myanmar in a human exodus of unprecedented scale.
Joining thousands of Rohingya Muslims already in Cox's Bazar, they cleared forests and built shelters from mud and bamboo to create a sprawling mass of camps that now house more than 900,000 people, of which 80 percent are women and children.
Over 18 months the Bangladesh government, with thousands of staff from about 145 non-government organizations (NGOs) and aid agencies, have brought order to the chaos, building more stable shelters, roads, sanitation and setting up community projects. But while life in the settlement has started to stabilize, aid workers said they were rushing to secure the camps for the longer term with no sign of the crisis ending and one factor hanging over them, the monsoon in May then cyclone season.
"This is not an easy place to work because we are constantly worrying about things over which we have no control," said Nayana Bose, spokeswoman for the Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) that coordinates the humanitarian agencies' work, as reported by Reuters. "It's challenging in terms of terrain, weather, and population," she said, adding this made it harder than other refugee crises and Bangladesh's biggest ever humanitarian task.
Aid workers recalled how the early months of the crisis were focused on life-saving work, such as building shelters and latrines, food supplies, and dealing with health emergencies.
They worked around the clock in the camps located about 40 km (25 miles) south of Cox's Bazar – a 1.5 hour drive that can take much longer depending on traffic on the pot-holed roads where aid agencies' four-wheel drives vie with auto rickshaws.
An estimated 700,000 Rohingya have fled over the border to Bangladesh since an army crackdown was launched in Rakhine State in August. Myanmar blames Rohingya militants for an Aug. 25 strike on security posts in Rakhine State that triggered a fierce army crackdown. At least 9,000 Rohingya were killed in Rakhine State from Aug. 25 to Sept. 24, according to Doctors without Borders. In a report last December, the global humanitarian group said the deaths of 71.7 percent, or 6,700 Rohingya, were caused by violence. The death toll includes 730 children below the age of 5.
The stateless Rohingya have been the target of communal violence and vicious anti-Muslim sentiment in mainly Buddhist Myanmar for years. Myanmar has denied citizenship to Rohingya since 1982 and excludes them from the 135 ethnic groups it officially recognizes, which effectively renders them stateless. The Rohingya trace their presence in Rakhine back centuries. But most people in majority-Buddhist Myanmar consider them to be unwanted Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh.