Rohingya refugees move out of harm's way in Bangladesh

As monsoon season approaches, displaced people shift to higher ground to avoid the threat from flooding and landslides
Rohingya refugees move out of harm's way in Bangladesh

Rohingya women walk past makeshift tents at Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar on March 16. Bangladesh's government has started moving 100,000 refugees to safer places within the camp to reduce risks to lives during the monsoon season. (Photo by Stephan Uttom)  

Bangladeshi authorities have started moving thousands of Rohingya refugees to higher ground to avert loss of lives in the upcoming monsoon season.

About 10,000 refugees living in "crushing zones" in several camps in Cox's Bazar have been moved to higher ground in recent weeks, while 100,000 will be moved before June, said Muhammad Abul Kalam, commissioner of the state-run Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission.

Monsoon deluges reach a peak in July and August.

"We have identified 100,000 refugees who built shelters in flood-risk zones that cannot withstand flooding and imminent landslides. They are being relocated to extended portions of the existing camps for safety," Kalam told ucanews.com.

Earthworks and soil solidification are being done to make the shelters sustainable.  

Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh's most popular tourist district, shelters about one million refugees who fled a deadly military crackdown in their homeland in Rakhine State of Myanmar.

Desperate refugees settled in up to 12 formal and informal camps by cutting down trees. Most live in makeshift shelters made of bamboo and tarpaulin standing on soft soil.

Mazharul Islam, disaster management officer at Catholic charity Caritas Chittagong, said it would collaborate with the government and other aid groups.

"The main concerns are the safety of human lives and the sustainability of refugee shelters. We are aware of the possibility of cyclones and flooding in coming months, so we are ready to support the government initiative," Islam told ucanews.com.

Rohingya refugees welcomed the government plan.

Muhammad Hamid, 30, lives on a hilltop at Balukhali refugee camp with his six-member family. They moved to the area from Maungdaw in Rakhine in January.

"We settled here as there was no space in the camps. Our majhi [block leader] informed us that we would be moved to another site for safety to avoid natural disasters. We are ready to move out as we realize flooding might cause landslides and we all would die," Hamid told ucanews.com.

Jamir Uddin, 60, came to Cox's Bazar from Maungdaw in late January with his 12-member family. They live in two tents set up on a hilly slope in Balukhali camp.

"When we came here, all the spaces were occupied already, so we started living here despite the risks. It's good that Bangladesh's government has decided to move us to a different place, otherwise we might get killed in flooding or landslides in the monsoon season," he told ucanews.com.

 

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Island gets ready for refugees

In 2016, Bangladesh's government announced it was planning to relocate hundreds of thousands of refugees to Thengar Char, a remote island in the Bay of Bengal.

Rights groups and the international community criticized the decision as media reports suggested the island was uninhabitable and prone to flooding during high tides and monsoons.

The government put the plan on the back burner but didn't scrap it. Measures are underway to make the island suitable for human living, said Muhammad Rezaul Karim, chief government officer at Hatiya, which covers Thengar Char. 

The island is about 25 kilometers from Hatiya town or a two-hour boat journey from the mainland. 

"It is true the island is prone to cyclones and flooding, but efforts are in place to make it livable. Some pontoons and helipad have been set up and the coastguards are overseeing security," Karim told ucanews.com.

"High-ranking officials have been monitoring the progress of development but we don't know when Rohingya might be relocated here."

George Soros and the Open Society Foundations on April 2 announced an emergency assistance fund of US$10 million to help the Rohingya and host communities in Bangladesh. 

The fund includes a donation of US$8 million to BRAC, an international development and humanitarian organization based in Bangladesh, while US$2 million will go to help other projects that support the Rohingya.

"The Rohingya people have already suffered serious abuses in Myanmar, and unless exceptional measures are taken, their suffering will continue in Bangladesh when the monsoon season starts this month," said Soros, founder and chair of the Open Society Foundations. "The more people are moved out of harm's way, the better the chances of the remaining ones to survive."

BRAC has more than 3,200 people working on the ground. Its integrated approach includes attention to sanitation and hygiene infrastructure, health care, education, protection, livelihood security, intensive behavioral change communication and counselling, and distribution of non-food items and shelter to ensure the dignity and well-being of displaced families. 

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