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Monsoon threatens refugees in Bangladesh

While I was in Bangladesh last week I visited the camp that houses almost a million Rohingya people who have fled from persecution in Myanmar. Until August 2017 about 300,000 people lived in the camp, having come in a slow trickle from 1992 onwards. The majority, however – almost 700,000 people – have arrived since August 2017.

Monsoon threatens refugees in Bangladesh

Biggest refugee camp in the world

The camp was already large: 300,000 people is comparable to a city the size of Utrecht. But now with almost a million people living there, the camp is bigger than a city the size of Amsterdam. And that has happened in just nine months. To put these figures into perspective: in 2017, just over 14,000 Syrian refugees sought asylum in the Netherlands.

And the camp is still growing. Tall flags with numbers on them tell you which section of the camp you are in (1, 2, 3, up to 27), and new numbers are being added all the time. It’s probably the biggest refugee camp in the world.

The big fear now is what the monsoon holds in store – the rainy season lasts from June to October. The first heavy rains and storms arrived last week, killing several people and causing extensive damage. Sewers were blocked and the unmade roads – the lifelines for food and fuel deliveries – turned into mud pools. Many of the makeshift huts stand in riverbeds, which can turn instantly into churning torrents. I fear that things will get worse as the rains and storms get stronger. 

Ecological and humanitarian crisis

There have already been landslides, partly due to the widespread deforestation. The area used to be a large forest, but thousands of hectares have been destroyed to make room for the camp and trees are also felled for firewood. It is said that two hectares of forest disappear every day. The roots of the trees held the clay soils together and thus reduced landslides, but these have now disappeared. The ecological consequences are enormous: more landslides are likely, certainly in combination with heavy rainfall. 

On 27 June the Dutch House of Representatives will discuss the situation in Myanmar. But this cannot be done without also addressing the plight of the Rohingya people in Bangladesh. The Bengal government now has plans to move the refugees to an uninhabited island off the coast of Bangladesh. The island is basically a sandbank where it is impossible to farm and therefore people will not be able to provide their own basic needs. It’s the equivalent of a prison. This plan must be stopped, and at the same time it is crucial that the Netherlands – via the UN – continues to put pressure on Myanmar to ensure the safe repatriation of Rohingya people. The UN and Myanmar recently signed an agreement that paves the way for Rohingya to return to Myanmar. But if I’m honest, I don’t think this is a realistic solution and nor do many other people I spoke to while in Bangladesh. Very few people are thinking of returning to Myanmar: it is still far too dangerous to do so. Moreover, people who return are asked for identity papers, which almost no refugees have.

There is no quick and easy solution to this crisis and more resources are needed. A large-scale catastrophe is almost unavoidable, and then even more humanitarian help will be needed.

ICCO and Kerk in Actie provide assistance to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh through ACT Alliance and Dutch Relief Alliance.

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