In August 2017 violence in the Rakhine state of Myanmar instigated a mass exodus of the Rohingya people.
They came over the border to Bangladesh and set up whatever shelter they could in places like Cox’s Bazar. They are mostly women and children, as many men and older boys lost their lives in the fighting.
Tearfund’s Chris McDonald visited the Kutapalong site at Cox’s Bazar in March. I began by asking him to describe what he saw:
It's massive. Two thirds of a million people have come across the border, and most of those are in one enormous camp. You look out over the camp and you've got little shelter after little shelter. They’re really close together on small hillocks in soft sandy soils. It’s very cramped – an enormous mass of humanity, if you like. This used to be a forest, but around five to ten square kilometres of it has now gone.
How did they manage to set up any sort of shelter for themselves?
As they fled they didn't have a lot of stuff. They’ve since been given bamboo and tarpaulin sheets to make their own shelters. They’ve also been given materials like mats, blankets, cooking pots, stoves, and they're being fed. There are weekly distributions of rice and lentils to make daal, which is what the people usually eat. There are also medical clinics which have been set up.
In this environment disease must spread quite rapidly?
Yes. There was the beginnings of an outbreak of diphtheria recently, but because of the international response it was very quickly contained and hasn't escalated any further. There are still big risks but at the moment the humanitarian system has coped quite well. There's a lot more we can do though. Generally speaking, people are surviving but they're not flourishing.
How have Tearfund and our partners responded to this crisis?
We were one of the first international NGOs to be able to assist, through our partners COAST Trust and CCDB. At first it was as simple as providing hot food for people who in most cases hadn’t eaten for a long time. Now they’ve been able to install latrines for people, a water supply and also help with hygiene messaging, to prevent the spread of disease.
They’re also creating safe spaces for people to recover from the trauma of fleeing across the border. Many say they’ve been physically and sexually abused and they're arriving in a foreign country, not really sure what's going to happen to them next.
How much of a threat are the monsoons?
Well, even before the monsoon, we're now entering cyclone season. Cox's Bazar hasn't seen one for two or three years, but it does get hit every now and again. So, that's the first threat – the first hazard if you like.
But the monsoon is the one we know is definitely going to happen. Every year, they get the big monsoon rains. It starts to build in May and then in June and July it really hits. It’s nothing like we see in the UK!
There's a big potential for flooding. Some of the areas where people are living will become streams of water. We’re aware of around 100,000-150,000 people who will need to be moved before the monsoon. There are plans to allocate additional land to try and move them to a safer place.
Then there’s the threat of landslides. People are living on very sandy soils, and because of the deforestation there's nothing holding the soil together anymore. When the rains come, you can imagine if your little hut is built on top of a hill, very quickly the sandy soil can be washed away and your shelter with it.
What's the likelihood of this being an even greater crisis for the Rohingya people than it already is?
The Monsoon's going to hit. It's coming. We're not going to stop it. So the focus is on working to prepare for it. There are some people that might have some physical or mental impairments, or they're elderly, or children. So it's thinking about the whole community and not just the ones who can easily run and get away, and trying to make sure that they're also safe.
But as well as working on preparing for the monsoon and possible cyclone, the other real area of threat is disease. We know we're in a cholera endemic area. We know we're in a diphtheria endemic area. And there's a whole host of other potential things, which might come.
Can you give me a picture of what people were feeling about all this when you met them?
I think people are just relieved to be out of the situation that they had before. They're not really thinking very far ahead into what's going to happen next. Even if it rains, they say ‘what's water going to do to us compared to what we faced at home?’
So despite threats of monsoons and landslides they’re not keen to go home now?
No, that's not going to move them. That's just the weather... compared to what they’ve faced already.
What's being done to alert people of these threats and what’s being done to mitigate the effects?
There's a plan – and our partners are a part of it. It’s called the Shelter and Non-food Item Sector Coordination. What they're trying to do is to map where the risks are most likely to be felt by people. We know where flood risk areas are, but it’s harder to know where the landslides will be. But where slopes are 35 degrees or greater, there's a likelihood of landslides.
The other major thing is people's own shelters. Our partners our trying to give people more materials to make their structures more substantial. Some of that involves distributing thicker and stronger bamboos. Some of it is more rope and ways to connect and secure the ropes into the ground. Other areas include improving drainage by trying to put in some brick or cemented drainage tunnels.
How can Tearfund supporters respond to this?
I think the Rohingya people are crying out for hope. It can't just be this. There must be more.
Pray that we are able to get good processes in place when the monsoons and a potential cyclone come. People are going to lose shelters in the monsoons, but if they can lose them in such a way that they don't physically get hurt themselves, and we're able to help them rebuild afterwards, I think it's going to be the key.
Pray for our partners and for Tearfund staff. The coordination of all of this is hugely complex, with the UN structure, the NGO structures, the government structures. Pray for good communication between them.