“I cannot stay here. I have children,” said Hamit Hussein, a Rohingya Muslim who has lived in the camp since August. “The hill is collapsing in the dry season. If it rains even a little, it will be destroyed.”
In Bangladesh, the world’s largest refugee camp is literally falling apart. With the annual cyclone and monsoon seasons approaching this month and next, hundreds of thousands of refugees are steeling themselves for the camp’s further collapse.
But most, like Hussein, have nowhere else to go.
Since August, some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims from Buddhist-majority Burma have poured onto a thin spit of land in southeastern Bangladesh, fleeing a brutal crackdown by Burma’s army that the United Nations has called ethnic cleansing.
Rohingya survivors and human rights groups accuse Burmese forces of torching villages, raping women and killing civilians in response to a series of attacks by a Rohingya insurgent group. Doctors Without Borders estimated in December that at least 6,700 were killed in the first month of the crackdown. Burma has denied many of the allegations.
Now the Rohingya face another threat. The Bangladeshi camps — carved out of jungle — have become overcrowded slums of flimsy shelters teetering on steep, unstable slopes. Aid groups warn that the approaching storm seasons could prove deadly. Last year, before the latest influx of refugees, a cyclone damaged 70 percent of the shelters in the camps.
“Our initial mapping study showed 120,000 at grave risk of floods and landslides,” said Fiona MacGregor, spokeswoman for the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration. But she added: “Pretty much everyone is at risk to some extent.”
In recent weeks, the season’s first few squalls turned valleys into swamps and shredded dozens of shelters.
“The tarp was stripped off by wind and the house was destroyed. Dishes, my stoves, everything,” Rukiya Begum said while standing in the frame of her hut, a loose plastic sheet flapping overhead. “I’m afraid to stay here.”
The earth here is fine sand packed into hard dunes that disintegrate at a touch. Small landslides are common on the deforested slopes and have killed at least two children. Many areas have no proper drainage or access roads for ambulances.
“The fact that it looks unprepared is absolutely how it really is,” said Tess Elias, country director in Bangladesh for the Danish Refugee Council, an aid group managing parts of the camps.
With worse weather to come, Doctors Without Borders is stockpiling bandages and intravenous fluids for mass-casualty events and warns of disease outbreaks if floodwaters overflow latrines, turning low-lying areas into festering pools of rainwater and human waste.
Marcella Kraay, the aid group’s project coordinator in the region, warned of outbreaks of acute watery diarrhea, also known as cholera: “It’s going to be humid, wet, unsanitary conditions.”
For now, Bangladesh’s government has refused to allow refugees the freedom of movement that might allow them to find safer places to live beyond the camp’s boundaries.
Aid workers complain that the authorities, wary of establishing a long-term presence of hundreds of thousands of refugees in an already densely populated nation, have mostly banned the use of stronger building materials such as cement, relegating the refugees to shelters made of bamboo and plastic.
But if the government appears inflexible, foreign aid groups suffer from their own troubles.
A March report by a consortium of British aid groups called the Disasters Emergency Committee described a “substandard” and “chaotic” response to the Rohingya refugee crisis, with a cumbersome bureaucracy amid confusion about which U.N. relief agency should be in charge.
Still, the biggest issue is a lack of space. So far, some 14,000 of the most vulnerable refugees have been moved to safer areas within the camp, but more land is needed for all at-risk people to find safer ground.
Work crews on the camp’s western boundary are flattening 123 acres for further relocations, but that space, meant to be finished by June, will hold only 13,000 to 16,000 people.
“That’s clearly not enough, but that’s where we are,” said Mark Pierce, head of the Save the Children aid group in Bangladesh.
Another option, floated by Bangladesh’s government, is to move 100,000 refugees to an island in the Bay of Bengal. The Bangladeshi navy is overseeing construction of what the government says will be a better home for the Rohingya.
But the plan is controversial. The island, called Bhasan Char, is more of a massive sandbar cut by canals and in constant flux amid shifting ocean currents. Serazul Mustafa, a Rohingya leader in the largest camp, called Kutupalong, said he feared the sea journey to the island would be dangerous.
In internal reports, first revealed by Reuters and confirmed by The Washington Post, aid groups including the U.N. refugee agency raised concerns that the island might become a trap for refugees, where they could be exposed to storms and be at risk of human trafficking.
Caroline Gluck, spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency in Bangladesh, said the agency had not yet visited Bhasan Char and so could not confirm that it was habitable. She called for an independent assessment of the island to ensure that it is safe and said the refugees should have freedom of movement on the island and to and from the mainland.
Wherever land is made available, however, many refugees, traumatized by their first displacement from Burma, are refusing to move again.
Kabir Ahmed said he declined a chance to move west, even though his home was threatened by a crumbling wall, because he feared elephants and thieves near the camp’s outskirts.
Instead, he opted to shift his shelter just a few meters away, safe from the wall, but downhill from a latrine with no drain and above a stagnant wastewater ditch.
“What can I say?” he said. “We were forced to flee here. We just need to deal with it.”