Nearly 1 million Rohingya Muslims now live in makeshift shelters in the refugee camps of Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district. And for months, international aid organizations and experts have warned of the dangers these refugees would face once monsoon season hit.
The rains have now arrived, and they claimed their first lives on Monday, killing 12 people in Cox's Bazar and the nearby Rangamati district. Among those killed were two Rohingya refugees, including a 3-year-old boy who died while sleeping when the mudwall of his family’s shelter collapsed on him in the earliest hours of Monday morning, police officials said. His mother, who was also asleep in the shelter, was injured.
The hilly terrain of the Kutupalong-Balukhali settlement makes it particularly vulnerable to destructive landslides in the torrential rain. The monsoon rains have already caused approximately 21 landslides within the past few weeks, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
More than 300 shelters have been damaged so far, according to Bangladesh's Ministry for Disaster Management and Relief.
"Some areas, like the football field areas, are flooded,” UNHCR spokeswoman Caroline Gluck told the Agence France Presse on Sunday. “Some houses have been inundated with water.”
The area on which the sprawling Kutupalong refugee camp was built is prone to flooding and cyclones during the monsoon season — typically from June to October. Last year, landslides caused by the monsoon rains killed at least 170 people in the region, aid agencies reported.
But the situation in the camps is more precarious than usual this year, as large swaths of land were cleared of anything that might have given the soil and shelters something to cling to, in order to build more shelters.
"The land has been stripped of all vegetation, to make way for the building of makeshift homes,” Gluck told CNN. “People are practically living on sandcastles."
According to the International Organization of Migration, a UN agency, more than 9,000 Rohingya refugees have already been affected by the rains, but many more are anticipated to be affected before the rainy season ends. Some 30,000 people are still living in parts of the camp considered to be at high risk of flooding and landslides.
The downpour not only poses a threat to the physical safety of the refugees, but also could also encourage the outbreak of water and vector-borne diseases — diseases transmitted through mosquitoes, fleas, and ticks. Though aid organizations like UNICEF have worked to fortify shelters and administer vaccines in preparation for monsoon season, the camp's residents still face serious danger.
“Sodden and unstable hills have collapsed over the weekend, destroying latrines," Sanjeev Kafley, head of the Cox’s Bazar office of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told Reuters. "At lower levels, water from flash floods is washing over latrines, carrying sludge through the camps. We’re already seeing increases in acute water diarrhea, and the risk of an outbreak of waterborne diseases is now a serious likelihood.”
More heavy rain is forecast over the next few days, and about 8 feet of rainfall is expected this monsoon season. Approximately 200,000 Rohingya refugees in the camp still need to be relocated, aid agencies told AFP.
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