Rohingya traditional singer Mohammed Sayedul Islam recently composed a contemporary new ghazal, or song, reflecting on the human crisis in his midst: “When the rainy season comes and the cyclone attacks, what will become of the Rohingya people?” he asks in a new video released by the United Nations’ refugee agency.
It’s a question pressing on the minds of aid workers and government officials as they work to prepare for the looming monsoon and storm seasons in already overcrowded and dire refugee camps. The exodus of over 671,000 mostly Rohingya refugees from Myanmar to Bangladesh began in the middle of the monsoon in 2017.
The borderlands of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh and Maungdaw district in Myanmar are some of the most inhospitable regions in the world, both subject to heavy monsoonal rainy seasons and regular storms that every several years include devastating cyclones.
The main monsoon months are June to September; at its monthly peak in July, Cox’s Bazar receives on average over 915 millimeters of rain.
The challenges faced by the Bangladeshi government, including the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief (MoDMR), and the main UN agencies the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Organization for Migration (IOM) are already immense.
More than 20 camps now sprawl along the two countries’ borderlands, with a projected 102,000 people being directly affected by flash floods and mudslides in the Kutapalong-Balukhali and Thangkhali areas.
The hillsides have been largely denuded of vegetation for shelter and cooking, adding to the risk of landslides.
According to a recent pre-monsoon review by the Swiss-based Assessment Capacities Project, contingency planning is well under way to reinforce hillsides and main access roads.
Still, food aid deliveries will likely be seriously hampered by rains that transform paths into mud-soaked impasses. Over 90% of the refugees are totally dependent on food aid.
Health needs will increase even beyond the considerable challenges already faced by the camps’ inhabitants, with the rains effecting water and sanitation as latrines will flood and waterborne diseases will inevitably spread.
UN contingency planning estimates over 85,000 people in low lying areas will be directly affected and need to be moved. The Bangaldeshi government has promised to allocate 500 acres for more shelters to be constructed.
Rain, wind, and waterborne disease are not the only perils. At least ten people in the Kutapalong-Balukhali camps have reportedly been killed by wild elephant attacks between September and March. Al Jazeera and BBC, meanwhile, recently released reports on the dangers to women and children in the camps, including cases of sex slavery.
UNHCR head Filippo Grandi launched an appeal in mid-March to raise an estimated US$951 million to assist 900,000 Rohingya refugees – including the large numbers who have fled Myanmar in past security operations or decades of repression – and 330,000 vulnerable Bangladeshis in the area.
Cox’s Bazar was one of Bangladesh’s most impoverished areas before the refugee crisis inundated the area.
Tropical cyclones, meanwhile, are an almost yearly phenomenon. In 2017, Cyclone Mora hit the coast around Cox’s Bazar, with winds of over 117 kilometers per hour displacing an estimated half a million people.
That included the destruction of Rohingya shelters for those who fled an earlier burst of military violence in Maungdaw in October 2016, launched in response to lethal insurgent attacks on border police outposts that killed at least 17.
Despite the overcrowded and desperate conditions in the camps, it is highly unlikely that large numbers of Rohingya will any time soon be able to return across the border to Myanmar’s Maungdaw district or other areas of western Rakhine state.
The Myanmar government’s construction of detainment camp-like facilities and the purported flurry of activity by the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Reconstruction and Development (UEHRD) has convinced few refugees or observers that the Rohingya can safely return to areas only recently subjected to the military’s scorched earth tactics.
Despite assurances from Myanmar’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government and repatriation agreements between Naypyidaw and Dhaka, the powerful military has made clear it will not accept any returnees who cannot prove full citizenship.
Given it was the military who was responsible for the “area clearance” operations which drove the refugees out in a paroxysm of arson and abuses against civilians, most of the Rohingya have well-founded fears that safe and dignified returns are impossible in the near term.
Thus it is possible that desperate refugees take to the seas again in growing numbers.
A boat carrying over 50 reported Rohingya men, women and children was reported to have briefly stopped in southern Thailand on Sunday, raising concerns of a resumption of the mass maritime flight of Rohingya from Bangladesh and Myanmar (often mixed with Bangladeshi migrant workers) headed to Malaysia.
The boat exodus reached its peak in 2015, with some 94,000 people estimated to have fled from the start of 2014 to May 2015, according to UNHCR research. An estimated 1,100 people died along the way in rickety boats on treacherous seas, the same research said.
That mass flight has not been repeated in the last two years, partly due to government crackdowns on the transnational smuggling rings that often organized the travel, but that could change as desperation in the teeming camps in Bangladesh leave many Rohingya with few options.
There are no easy answers for the Rohingya, whose return to Myanmar seems highly unlikely, their presence in Bangladesh imperiled by the looming monsoon and thinning patience of the Bangladeshi government, and the prospects of resettlement to third countries increasingly improbable as the sheer scale of the crisis becomes more unmanageable.
David Scott Mathieson is a Yangon-based independent analyst