This year, early summer brought havoc in parts of south and western southeast Asia. A powerful storm – Cyclone Mora – hit Bangladesh and southwest Myanmar on 30 May, unleashing heavy rains and winds of over 115 km/hr along its path. The superstorm resulted in the displacement of around 500,000 people and death of at least 6 people in Bangladesh.
— Mustafiz Forayeji (@mrforayeji) May 29, 2017
Despite the evacuation of around 350,000 people in the southeast and besides the patent destruction, Cyclone Mora also triggered a humanitarian crisis of a specific kind in southeastern Bangladesh.
The storm brought calamitous devastation to the several Rohingya refugee camps in and around Cox’s Bazar district. The two government-run, UNHCR-supervised camps in Noyapara and Kutupalong saw widespread destruction, with almost all shelters (made up of mud, bamboo, corrugated iron, and plastic sheets) suffering some damage, and 20% completely destroyed. The makeshift camps, including the one in Balukhali, saw even greater destruction due to the flimsy structures, with 70% of all shelters suffering severe damages.
This is an extraordinary situation for a community that is already in severe distress due to crisis displacement and political persecution in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, the place that they call ‘home’.
— Merinews (@merinews) May 31, 2017
Refugees are often the most vulnerable people within a certain demographic domain due to uncertain living conditions and non-contractual link with the host state. Disruptions due to natural causes can act as force multipliers in the falling graph of living conditions for refugees. The frequent food shortages in Kenya’s Dadaab Refugee Camp – the world’s largest – due to perennial drought conditions, are a glaring testimony.
Cyclone Mora too validates this inimical link between natural disasters and displaced populations, and exposes the extreme vulnerability of refugees in south Asia. Even within this compound equation, the Rohingyas are at greater risk as compared to other refugees. This is because they are stateless. Technically, no country carries a legitimate liability to tend to them. This is a peculiar situation that continually threatens the very existence of the community.
“I hate being a Rohingya. We are being tortured in Myanmar. Now in Bangladesh we have no rights – nothing. After this cyclone, we don’t have a roof. We are living under the sky. We have no future,” 27-year old Hamida Begum, a refugee, told Reuters.
Very evidently, Cyclone Mora has only made matters worse for the Rohingyas in distress. The poor living conditions of the camps have dipped further below the baseline after the destruction.
“There’s no roof. We are just drinking water. The little food we had in our home was all damaged after the cyclone,” said Setara Begum, 30, mother of two children.
The adverse effects of lack of shelter, potable water, and food are being felt hardest by the most vulnerable amongst the at-risk population. This includes the elderly, pregnant women, the sick, and children. It is neither easy nor recommended for the weak and distressed to spend a night in the rain with nothing to eat or drink and cover their heads with, that too in conditions conducive for outbreak of diseases.
— Shafiur Rahman (@shafiur) May 31, 2017
The Rohingya refugee population in Bangladesh has already been susceptible to a range of adverse conditions like overcrowding, endemics, lack of sanitation, and potable water. The degree of adversity, however, varies according to the mandated scope of humanitarian assistance.
The refugee population in and around Cox’s Bazar is divided into two categories: one, those who arrived in or before 2012, are settled in the two main UNHCR camps, and enjoy complete legal status as refugees; two, those who arrived after 2016 (including post the October 2016 crackdown in northern Rakhine), are settled in makeshift camps with rickety shelters, and aren’t fully entitled to aid or humanitarian assistance from the government or aid agencies.
The second groups stands far more vulnerable to the adverse aftermath of Cyclone Mora, given broader inaccessibility of basic provisions and lack of assistance in infrastructural restoration. The storm’s overall impact is expected to make disbursement of aid far more challenging for UNHCR. The camps have been already stressed to provide safe and secure conditions for its occupants. A sudden spillover in the aftermath of the storm will render camp management tricker.
Truth remains that the Rohingyas were already living in squalid conditions insofar as the refugee camps in Bangladesh and India are concerned. Their dreams of a better future are continuously overpowered by their pursuit of basic, everyday amenities – clean water, sanitation facilities, shelter, and food. A well-paying job is perhaps a distant desire for most.
To take the bird’s eye view, this in itself is a perpetual humanitarian crisis that demands concerted efforts and political will to resolve. In such a situation, natural disasters can be the final nail on the coffin.
Bangladesh was already hosting close to 500,000 Rohingya refugees (including 32,000 registered refugees) before 90,000 more arrived between October 2016-March 2017 after Myanmar’s security forces put northern Rakhine in a lockdown, responding to insurgent attacks on border posts in the area. The sudden influx naturally overwhelmed the Bangladeshi government, which found itself in a fix.
Initially, Dhaka attempted to seal its borders with Myanmar, and even send some of the refugees back. However, following pressure from UNHCR to keep the borders open, it resorted to full-spectrum acceptance of Rohingyas fleeing the lockdown. Since then, Bangladesh has switched to the diplomatic channel, taking up the matter with the Myanmar government and requesting timely repatriation of the Rohingyas. Myanmar, expectedly, remains averse to this.
The destruction brought about by Cyclone Mora is bound to fall hard on the Bangladeshi government’s capacity to host almost half a million refugees in humane conditions. At a time when Dhaka was already struggling to provide for the camps, fresh internal displacement is expected to complicate the situation by adding resettlement costs and pressure to ensure the restoration of basic camp conditions within a shorter deadline.
The destruction unleashed on the camps also dilutes Dhaka’s case before Myanmar. There can be little justification for refoulement of a refugee population during a time of overlapping crises. Uprooting the Rohingya refugees in the immediate post-cyclone period – without tending to their basic needs – could trigger a full-fledged humanitarian crisis, damaging the government’s credibility. Yet, one cannot be certain of how long the internal resettlement would take.
Natural Disasters and Political Choices
Cyclone Mora, amongst other things, tells us that the impact spectrum of natural disasters is directly linked to political choices of national governments. Today, the refugees would not be in the eye of a storm if not for the punitive treatment accorded by the Myanmar government in northern Rakhine. Contrarily, if Dhaka had swiftly moved in to regularise the makeshift camps, the scale of damage would have been lesser and the response more controlled.
Agreeably, this isn’t easy for a government that is struggling on many fronts at home. But, in a March 2017 report, UNHCR pointed out that there is an urgent need for a coordinate effort between the government and various government agencies to urgently institute verification and regularisation mechanism for the new arrivals.
Interestingly, in January 2017, Bangladesh announced that it would relocate the Rohingya refugee population to a riverine island south of Cox’s Bazaar, called Thengar Char – an impermanent natural formation that is lashed by high tides throughout the year and flooded during monsoons. The reason for the relocation (that has been on the cards for long now), as stated by a fresh 26 Jan notification in the Bangladesh government’s ‘Cabinet Division’ website (which has now been removed), was:
“There’s a fear that the influx of Rohingya Muslims from time to time will lead to a degradation of law and order situation, spread communicable diseases … and create various social and financial problems.”
This essentially means that Dhaka is growing impatient of the refugee situation and the political, economic, and security-related fallouts that it can have on Bangladesh. It does not want the refugees to be intermingling with the local population. Quite visibly, Cyclone Mora tests the Sheikh Hasina-led government’s patience even further, with breakdown of the makeshift camp ecosystem and the resultant spillover.
All of this is indicative of a phenomenon that requires greater attention from environmental, humanitarian, and conflict management experts: the differential impact of natural disasters on refugee populations. The growing literature and research on this domain focuses largely on the cause-effect plane: displacement as a result of natural disasters (environmental refugees). However, broad-spectrum research on the specific impact of natural calamities on refugee settlements is still starkly limited.
The Rohingya refugee condition in Bangladesh should certainly be a wake-up call in this regard.
Angshuman Choudhury is a Researcher at the South East Asia Research Programme of the New Delhi-based think tank, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.