As the monsoon rains start in Bangladesh, there are grave concerns for refugees
Rohingya refugees shelter from torrential rain after crossing the border into Bangladesh. Photograph: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters
For 14 terrifying days, Nabil Alam, his wife and nine children trudged through the jungles of northern Myanmar to reach the border with Bangladesh. The entire way, Alam looked over his shoulder for soldiers or local militia groups armed with clubs and knives.
That was eight months ago. Now, in the refugee camps of south-east Bangladesh, he is anxiously watching the sky, awaiting the dark clouds that will soon drench the area in months of monsoon rain.
Cox’s Bazar is one of the most frequently flooded regions of one of the most flood-prone countries on Earth. Bangladesh’s southern tip is fewer than three metres above sea level, with a triangular coast that funnels the ocean together. It makes high tides higher, and puts even major cities such as Chittagong within the water’s grasp.
As well as heightening the risk of floods, Bangladesh’s geography also makes for extraordinarily deadly storms. A cyclone in 1970 killed 300,000 people. Another in the same area in 1991 left an estimated 10 million people homeless. Cyclone Sidr, a decade ago, killed as many as 10,000 people.
Should cyclones bear down on the region again, as they have in the past two years, they could collide with nearly 700,000 new residents sleeping in tents of bamboo and tarpaulin. Aid agencies fear a second catastrophe is about to strike the Rohingya. “Lives will be lost,” says Daphnée Cook, Save the Children’s communications manager. “It’s just a question of how many.”
As many as 200,000 refugees are estimated to be at direct risk from landslides or floods and require urgent evacuation, separate assessments by the Bangladesh government and aid groups have concluded. Most have nowhere to go.
Rainwater collects at a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar. Photograph: Daphnée Cook/AFP/Getty Images