Heavy Rain Causes Deadly Landslide at Bangladesh Rohingya Camp

Abdur Rahman and Sharif Khiam
Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, and Dhaka
Heavy Rain Causes Deadly Landslide at Bangladesh Rohingya Camp A Rohingya man carries a woman out of the flooded Balukhali refugee camp in Ukhia, a sub-district of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, July 27, 2021.

At least six Rohingya, including two children, were killed Tuesday when a landslide caused by torrential rains swept away several makeshift shelters at a crowded refugee camp in southeastern Bangladesh, officials said.

Such deaths have become a regular occurrence in the hilly Cox’s Bazar camps – which house about 1 million refugees from neighboring Myanmar – during the heavy, seasonal monsoons from April through September.

One of the Rohingya killed on Tuesday, a child, drowned when the landslide occurred, said Mohammad Shamsud Douza, an additional refugee relief and repatriation commissioner.

“Landslide in the hills killed five Rohingya and another Rohingya died drowning,” Douza, an additional refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, told BenarNews, adding that two children were injured.

“We have recovered the dead bodies of the six victims.”

The heavy downpour during the past two days flooded camp number 10 in the Balukhali settlement in Cox’s Bazar, causing the landslide, Shah Rezwan Hayat, the refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, told BenarNews. The same settlement was the site of a fire that killed 11 Rohingya in March.

Hayat said it was possible that many shelters were destroyed at other camps as well.

“To save them from probable disasters, we have relocated some 1,500 families from the vulnerable camps to safer places,” he told BenarNews. “We have been working to relocate more families facing risks of landslides and flooding.”

Hayat said the affected Rohingya families had taken shelter at the settlement’s learning and community centers, mosques and madrassas.

Sultan Ahmed, a Rohingya leader at the camp hit by the landslide, said there had been floods in the past.

“The residents of this camp had been in fear as casualties previously occurred at this same camp,” Sultan told BenarNews. “Due to rain, many families have lost their houses in the last two days. We have been trying to give them shelter at the houses of their relatives.”

Last month, two separate landslides in Cox’s Bazar led to the death of two Rohingya refugees.

Camps ‘set on hilly areas’

Human Rights Watch in August 2018 urged the government to build permanent infrastructure at the camps to replace the shanties made of plastic sheeting and bamboo, but the Bangladesh government has not done so.

The rights watchdog said at the time that Bangladesh has “not allowed for other infrastructure that would suggest longer-term stay,” as it wanted to maintain pressure on Myanmar to take back the persecuted Muslim minority.

Enamur Rahman, the state minister for disaster management and relief, did not immediately respond on Tuesday to requests for comment on HRW’s assessment.  

The refugee population in and around Cox’s Bazar includes more than 740,000 who fled violent attacks against Rohingya by Burmese military and security forces in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in August 2017.

Md. Edris Alam, chief executive of the Disaster and Development Organization NGO, said the sudden influx of refugees post-August 2017 led to the government’s creation of an unplanned settlement.

“Most of the Rohingya camps in Ukhia and Teknaf are set on hilly areas,” Alam told BenarNews.

“To build settlements there, the hills should not be cut at more than a 30 degree angle. Many of the Rohingya camps were built cutting hills at a 90 degree angle. This makes the camps vulnerable to landslides.”

Alam, a geography professor at Chittagong University, said several researchers already identified the camps as being vulnerable to landslides during the monsoons.

“If the residents are not evacuated from the vulnerable spots now, then we might see more casualties by landslides in the future,” he said.

The unplanned building of the refugee camps also damaged the area’s “natural drainage system” because of overcrowding, he said.

The government has often touted a remote Bay of Bengal island as a safer location for the refugees, despite some initial international criticism about its livability.

Since December 2020, about 19,000 Rohingya have relocated to Bhashan Char, a low-lying island where the government has constructed a housing complex to accommodate as many as 100,000 refugees.

Authorities have insisted moves by Rohingya to Bhashan Char will be voluntary.

One official at the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief on Tuesday brought up the island as an alternative to the crowded camps, but said he did not want to be named because he wasn’t allowed to talk to the media.

“Considering the vulnerability of the refugees and the [lack of] environmental sustainability of the camps in Ukhia and Teknaf, the government built a permanent settlement in Bhashan Char in Noakhali for the forcefully displaced Myanmar nationals,” he said.


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