After fleeing for their lives to the world’s largest refugee settlement, young parents lived in fear of heavy rains and landslides before move to new home on stilts.
By Roger Burks in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh
The young mother smiles as she lays 17-month-old Arafat down for a nap in the shade of their new bamboo-framed shelter. Outside, his three-year-old brother Ayaz laughs and plays with friends as their father arrives home carrying an armload of food for the family.
It is a happy moment in the life of this young household, but, for Abul Kalam, Rahima Khatun and their children, the current sense of security and wellbeing is a sharp contrast to the previous two and a half years.
In August 2017, Abul, Rahima and baby Ayaz were suddenly forced to flee their home near Buthidaung, Myanmar, when their neighborhood was attacked.
“I saw people getting killed,” 27-year-old Abul explains. “We had to escape quickly and couldn’t bring anything with us. It took us six days to reach Bangladesh because we had to hide, and it was difficult to travel with a small child.”
Their story is similar to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who have come to Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district in the recent displacement – 80 per cent of them women and children.
“Our biggest challenge used to be shelter … Whenever it rained, the floor got very wet and turned to mud.”
These refugees, who faced perilous journeys fleeing for their lives, claimed space on hillsides and built makeshift shelters. Within weeks, the area was transformed into the world’s largest refugee settlement, sanctuary to some 855,000 Rohingya.
However, even though families have found safety here, they have also faced considerable challenges. Environmental degradation, inadequate sanitation, lack of infrastructure, and, most terrifying of all, the threat of catastrophic weather during the annual monsoon.
“Our biggest challenge used to be the shelter where we lived. During the monsoon, whenever it rained, the floor got very wet and turned to mud,” says 25-year-old Rahima of the wet season, which is from March to October. “There were insects and it was very unhealthy. It made our children sick.”
The monsoon rains also brought the threat of floods and landslides. Extreme weather, steep slopes and makeshift shelters can be a deadly combination in such a densely-populated place.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and its partners have worked to save and improve the lives of Rohingya refugees by helping develop and safeguard the settlements in Cox’s Bazar district.
Like the settlement itself, the scale of the work has been immense. More than 91,000 shelters have been replaced or repaired, on top of construction of 27 kilometres of roads and pathways, 78 kilometres of drainage, 59 kilometres of retaining structures, 32 kilometres of steps and 4.4 kilometres of bridges, lit by more than 2,500 solar-powered streetlights.
To further assist residents, 33 health facilities and 25 nutrition centres have been opened, and more than 88,000 pre-monsoon shelter kits have been delivered to especially vulnerable refugees.
Some of the environmental impacts of such large numbers living in close proximity have also been addressed in collaboration with energy and environment partners, including the replanting of some 800 hectares with 27 species of local plants and trees, as well as training 185,000 refugees on environmental protection.
In order to build on this successful collaboration and further improve the lives of Rohingya refugees and some 444,000 vulnerable Bangladeshis in the community generously hosting them, UNHCR and its partners on Tuesday launched the 2020 Joint Response Plan.
“We have made huge advances in reducing risks to the lives of Rohingya refugees.”
The plan aims to mobilize US$877 million to ensure continued access to food, clean water and sanitation, shelter and other urgent assistance, as well as expanding education, energy, environment and other services that contribute to refugees’ dignity and wellbeing. The Government of Bangladesh and its people have offered hospitality and solidarity in this enormous effort.
“Together with our partners, we have made huge advances in reducing risks to the lives of Rohingya refugees. We’ve prepared for the critical monsoon and cyclone seasons when severe flooding places children at risk and small landslides happen almost daily,” says Steven Corliss, UNHCR Representative in Bangladesh.
“This has included training thousands of refugees in emergency response, putting in place emergency relocation procedures and adopting other mitigation measures. Innovative responses, such as upgraded shelters, are important to improving the daily lives of refugees in the camps.”
A team of trained Rohingya volunteers works to raise community awareness of emergencies like the monsoon, as well as help identify households that are particularly at risk from the effects of extreme weather.
Mohammed Halim is one of those volunteers. Halim, 20, arrived here in 2017 after fleeing violence in Myanmar alongside his parents, grandmother, seven brothers and four sisters.
On a typical day Mohammed spends eight hours or more traversing the settlement, checking on the condition of shelters and the wellbeing of his neighbours, as well as informing UNHCR and its partners which households are most in need of assistance.
“I’m proud to do this work in order to support my community.”
“I’m proud to do this work in order to support my community,” Mohammed says. “We were once strangers, and now we live as friends.”
Earlier this year, Abul, Rahima and their children were selected to receive a new, improved shelter, which was constructed to withstand the effects of the monsoon and other extreme weather threats. The shelter was built using durable bamboo and is elevated on small stilts so that water can flow underneath it.
For Rahima especially, it has been a welcome change.
“Volunteers helped us the day we moved. After we settled in, we were very happy,” she explains. “We cooked a good meal and shared it with our new neighbours.
“I used to be worried in our previous place, but now I’m not. The floor and the foundation are stronger,” she continues. “I was relieved that my children’s health might improve. I’m not worried about the rains now; we are at peace.”
As baby Arafat falls asleep and three-year old Ayaz giggles with his friends, Rahima and Abul go about their household chores with a renewed sense of security and hope.
“We look forward to a better life,” Rahima says.
Originally published by UNHCR on 03 March 2020