The world’s largest refugee settlement is in the crosshairs of a cyclone and a pandemic

Flooding in a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar on Thursday as a result of Cyclone Amphan. (Mayyu Ali)
Flooding in a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar on Thursday as a result of Cyclone Amphan. (Mayyu Ali)

Cox’s Bazar — In what is often described as the world’s largest refugee settlement, Rohingya refugees who have fled genocide in Myanmar are enduring one disaster after another.

On March 24, Bangladesh confirmed the first covid-19 case in the city of Cox’s Bazar. Since then, the government imposed a lockdown in the area, including for the camps where more than 1 million Rohingya refugees — myself included — are surviving. On May 14, Bangladesh reported the first two confirmed cases within the camps itself — a Rohingya refugee and a local Bangladeshi person.

The nightmare of what we and the world have feared for months had finally arrived at our doorsteps — and it couldn’t have come at a worse time.

The very next day, humanitarian groups used loudspeakers to warn us about Cyclone Amphan, a super-cyclone that was the strongest storm on record in the Bay of Bengal. The groups raised two red flags together in camps, one to signal the detection of the coronavirus in refugee camps and the other to signal the cyclone.

Wednesday night marked the Night of Decree for Muslims, the night when the Koran was first sent down from heaven to the world. Rohingya refugees in camps were waiting for the night to seek safeguard from Allah. While thousands were preparing for prayers, heavy rain and wind started to strike.

The refugees held their breath in fear and despair. The worst fear was for the lives of more than 300 who had been recently relocated to the Bhasan Char island by the Bangladesh government. We still don’t know what happened that night on the floating island.

On Thursday morning, we woke to a number of devastations: landslide, dozens of destroyed shelters and the flooding. Fortunately, no casualties were reported. Still, the dark and heavy clouds are gathering above us; the sounds of thunder are roaring across the sky.

Cyclone Amphan may soon dwindle in Cox’s Bazar, but the monsoon season is just about to arrive. No monsoon leaves the Rohingya refugee camps without devastation. Every year, there are accounts of landslides, shelters destroyed and flooding in camps.

However, our greatest fear is still the spread of the novel coronavirus in the overcrowded camps. Every day brings new confirmed cases in Cox’s Bazar. By Wednesday, there were reportedly 11 confirmed cases in Rohingya refugee camps.

The patients are kept in the isolation facilities that have been newly constructed by United Nations agencies in refugee camps. Refugees who were in contact with those patients were placed in quarantine in Cox’s Bazar, a densely populated area where social distancing is a fantasy. My own family of seven lives in a 16-foot shelter made of tarpaulin, and it is common for dozens to share a single toilet and hand-pump for hygiene.

To make matters worse, since September, the Bangladeshi government has shut down the Internet and restricted mobile services in refugee camps. We need access to news and health websites to protect ourselves amid this pandemic. Without information, misinformation and panic are rife. Every night, we suffer from anxiety. Every morning, we hear about new cases in refugee camps and fall deeper into fear.

Those who fall ill with fever and coughing are afraid to go to the international NGO-run clinic in camps. There are rumors that those who are found with this virus are shot to death. Many refugees are afraid of getting tested for the virus.

Even before the virus and the devastating storm, our situation was dire. Last week, two accidental fires destroyed hundreds of shelters in the camps. We have been surviving by relying on humanitarian aid. In this pandemic, we need adequate health care, testing kits and quarantine facilities in refugee camps. We need Bangladesh to lift the Internet restriction in camps. We need the international community to help us immediately, before lives are lost.

From Myanmar’s state-sponsored genocide to the natural disasters, we have overcome so much. How many more disasters do we need to face? How many more lives have to be lost? The more we die, the less the world seems to care. All we want is to live in peace in Myanmar with dignity. Instead, we are facing yet another battle for survival.

Mayyu Ali is the author of “EXODUS: Between Genocide and Me.”

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