Desperate Rohingya refugees in cyclone-hit Bangladesh are risking their lives by taking perilous routes to countries such as Malaysia in search of a better life, an aid expert has said. Some half a million people live in camps in the border district of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, having fled a brutal crackdown led by neighbouring Myanmar’s military in 2017.
Cyclone Mocha hit the coastlines of Bangladesh and Myanmar on May 14 with winds of up to 130 miles per hour.
The worst damage was around the coastal city of Sittwe, the capital of Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine, but was severe even as the weakened storm moved inland into Chin state.
At least 148 people in Rakhine were killed by the storm which triggered flash floods and power outages, tore roofs off buildings and crumpled mobile phone towers. Myanmar state media said more than 186,000 buildings were damaged by the cyclone.
The counting of casualties from the cyclone has been slow, in part due to communication difficulties in the areas affected and Myanmar’s military government’s tight control over information.
Hrusikesh Harichandan, Head of Sub-Delegation at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ Population Movement Operation, told Express.co.uk it was a frightening experience for people already struggling to survive.
He said: “People were under constant threat, thinking it could be very different for them. However, they were able to manage it.
“I would not say they are resilient. I would say they suffered the most. Their future is very uncertain. They do not know when they will have a chance to go back to their homeland.”
While there were no reported fatalities among Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee population, the winds left a trail of destruction, levelling bamboo shelters, blocking roads with debris and damaging sanitation facilities.
While some 750,000 people were evacuated from the camps in Mocha’s path and taken to centres established by aid agencies and the Bangladeshi government, others opted to remain. About 3,500 people were displaced by the cyclone on the Bangladeshi side with more than a million affected overall.
Concerns were raised after the cyclone passed about whether urgent supplies of food, shelter, drinking water and medical help can be met before the region’s monsoon season begins.
Mr Harichandan said: “Some people have left [Bangladesh] by taking risky routes to Malaysia and other places. [The refugee camps are] not a place where people want to live long term. People are in search of a better life.”
The Bangladesh-based aid worker said living conditions in the country’s 33 refugee camps mean it is hard for people to manage with no schools for children and no chance for young people to study.
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Each year, about 30,000 babies are born in Bangladesh’s refugee camps, but households have seen the allowance they depended on to meet their basic needs drop from $12 to $8, in part due to limited resources being stretched by the emergence of other humanitarian crises in other parts of the world, such as the earthquake in Turkey.
Mr Harichandan said: “The biggest challenge is funding.”
Acting British High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Matt Cannell, recently announced £2.3million worth of extra funding while visiting camps and host communities in Cox’s Bazar.
The funding will help refugees to rebuild their shelters after a huge fire in Camp 11 in March destroyed 2,800 shelters and following Cyclone Mocha.
Mr Harichandan said the extra support will help improve people’s living conditions and praised staff at Britain’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office for the support they have shown the Rohingya.
As circumstances have worsened in the camps, a small minority have turned to crime, with aid workers reporting armed gangs marauding through camps, forcing some to flee.
Myanmar’s military has until recently shown little interest in taking back any Rohingya, who have long been regarded as foreign interlopers in their own country, having been denied citizenship and subjected to abuse.
Attempts to repatriate Rohingya failed in 2018 and 2019 over refugees’ fears of violence. A delegation from Myanmar visited camps in Bangladesh in March to begin the process of processing a few hundred returnees as part of a pilot project.
Mr Harichandan said the solution is for the Rohingya to be able to return to Myanmar.
He said: “We do have hope. We see the light at the end of the tunnel. The international community has been advocating for their rights. These people must be able to go back to their homeland. That is the solution. We hope their future will be their. But when that is, has yet to be seen.
“[The Rohingya] have their right to live and have a decent life. It’s our responsibility to ensure that. The future of these people is important for all of us from a humanitarian point of view.
“For almost six years now they have been in the same situation – in limbo with nothing moving forward.”
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