Rohingya crisis enters second year

How Caritas is helping refugees deal with monsoon rains and mudslides

Stories by Nana Anto-Awuakye/CAFOD and Inmanuel Chayan Biswas/Caritas Bangladesh
Photos by Nana Anto-Awuakye/CAFOD, Stefan Teplan/Caritas Germany and Ismail Ferdous/CRS

An emergency within an emergency

Since 25 August 2017 the number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh has reached nearly 1 million.

Most refugees in Cox’s Bazar are living in makeshift shelters built from bamboo and tarpaulin on bare earth. Some are built on uneven ground and on hills as steep as 45 degrees.

And now the monsoon rain has arrived.

“The monsoon has started, it cannot be stopped. We must be prepared for an ‘emergency within an emergency’.”

– Mazharul Islam, Caritas Bangladesh’s Emergency Response Coordinator

How you can help the Rohingya crisis

Caritas is helping refugees to build homes which are safer during the monsoon.

Read more below and help us build more homes by making a donation today.

Caritas Bangladesh project: How to monsoon-proof a refugee camp

With the monsoon season, Caritas Bangladesh, working with UNHCR, piloted an innovative project to improve refugees’ living conditions.

Watch this scrolling gallery of photos to see the 9 steps Caritas took to help people prepare for the monsoon.

  • Step 1: Identify and move the most vulnerable refugees to safer areas of the camp...

    Photo: Ismail Ferdous/CRS

  • Step 2: Use aerial data to identify the land most at risk from flooding and landslides.

    Photo: Ismail Ferdous/CRS

  • Step 3: Recruit and train refugees as manual labourors.

    Photo: Ismail Ferdous/CRS

  • Step 4: Teach refugees to build strong shelters with sloping roofs and basic windows.

    Photo: Ismail Ferdous/CRS

  • Step 5: Terrace the slopes with bamboo to prevent mud slides.

    Photo: Ismail Ferdous/CRS

  • Step 6: Build bridges.

    Photo: Ismail Ferdous/CRS

  • Step 7: Build bamboo steps and sand bag paths.

    Photo: Ismail Ferdous/CRS

  • Step 8: Build concrete-lined drains and gender-segregated toilets.

    Photo: Ismail Ferdous/CRS

  • Step 9: Provide solar lights to make it safer to walk around the camp.

    Photo: Nana Anto-Awuakye/CAFOD

“People are now safe and able to live without fear as shelters have been constructed using a disaster-friendly technique.”

– Sydul Islam, Caritas engineer

How Caritas has helped so far

families helped with shelter
families received food
solar lamps distributed

A culture of love

Watch Atul Sarker, Executive Director of Caritas Bangladesh, talk about how Caritas is helping Rohingya refugees during the heavy rain. He also talks about how he, as a former refugee, feels watching one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises unfold in Bangladesh.

“Caritas is spreading the culture of love and care and compassion for the needy people.”

– Atul Sarker, Caritas Bangladesh Executive Director

New shelters for the most vulnerable

Hamid Hussain, his wife, and five children were preparing to leave Myanmar. On the night before they fled Hamid says five members of the army entered his home. They stole the family’s money and jewellery and started shooting.

One bullet hit Hamid in the leg. Two others killed his sons Iman (30) and Saiyid (17). With tears in his eyes he remembers Iman:

“My elder son always loved to talk. I could never keep him silent. A bullet made him silent forever.”

The rest of the family escaped and reached Bangladesh during the monsoon season. “It was raining heavily. Thousands of people were standing in the rain,” says Hamid.

Hamid made a shelter out of bamboo poles and tarpaulins but it was on a hill. When the 2018 monsoon rain arrived the shelter collapsed.

His younger daughter and wife became sick because of the wet conditions. Caritas recognised that the family was vulnerable and moved them to one of the new shelters.

Caritas also supplies the family with basic items such as food, water and blankets. He says: “We are totally dependent on relief because we are unable to work. If we don’t get any relief, we just go to sleep drinking a glass of water.”

Despite having suffered a great deal over the past year, Hamid says he feels comfort in the fact that there are people, like Caritas staff, who help him in any way they can.

Hamid from Myanmar has received a new shelter from Caritas.

Hamid from Myanmar has received a new shelter from Caritas.

Involving Rohingya refugees

An important element to this project was involving refugees themselves. The work of preparing their surroundings and working on their shelters has at least given them a measure of dignity and pride.

Feeling Proud

Hasina, 50 (pictured above in the peach headscarf) volunteered to take part. She said: “I’ve never used these tools before”, she says, “but Caritas experts showed us what to do. When we first tried, the rain came through. But then we corrected our mistakes, and last night when it rained, the shelter stood up to it. I’m feeling very proud.”

Talking while working

Nuznaher, 48 (pictured in the yellow headscarf), says: “I feel very good that I have used these tools, and worked on my home, it is a great achievement for me. She also adds that a positive aspect of coming together to work on the site improvements, is that the women have been able to share their stories with each other. The harrowing memories of people’s escape to safety are never far away.”

Bishop Gervas Rozario, head of Caritas Bangladesh, at a Rohingya refugee camp.

Bishop Gervas Rozario

“We have worked with camp communities to prepare them, their shelters and the surrounding areas for the monsoon, which is under way. But where will the funding come from as the crisis goes into a second, third, or fourth year? No political solution appears likely in the foreseeable future.”

– Bishop Gervas Rozario, head of Caritas Bangladesh

Caritas helped Nor from Myanmar to improve his shelter.

Nor and his son had a comfortable live in Myanmar before they became refugees in Bangladesh

Gaining a sense of purpose

Nor, 35, feels frustrated that he can’t work in the camp. He remembers what life was like for him and his family back in Myanmar:

“In Myanmar, I had 4 cows, 7 goats and 30 acres of land. I had a wooden house on stilts with a tin roof. I produced many rice sacks, enough to feed my family, and the rest I sold for a decent price at market. I also grew vegetables – like chillies.

“I was taking care of my wife and children very well. I had no problem feeding them and taking care of their needs.”

Nor felt pleased to be given the chance to strengthen his shelter. It gave him a sense of purpose.

“I knew the technique being shown us, and my hands handled the materials well. My mind was kept busy with this work.

But he’s still worried about cyclones:

“I have seen what a cyclone does,” he says. “It lifts up the house, everything is broken, and it leaves flooding behind. If a cyclone comes here, how will we sustain our homes?”

Improving health and sanitation facilities

When it rains good hygiene becomes even more important.

Earlier in 2018 there were no latrines or washing areas in many areas of the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps. Families had no choice but to defecate on the hillsides – because there were no latrines or washing facilities. When it rained the sludge just moved down the hillside, causing a health hazard.

Rebeya from Bangladesh started volunteering for Caritas Bangladesh in early 2018 and has been working on improving health and sanitation facilities in the camp.

On her first time visiting one of the camps, Rebeya says she felt overwhelmed by what she saw.

“I was a little bit scared. It was the first time I have ever visited a refugee camp. There were so many people and when I saw their houses, I was shocked, just bamboo and plastic [tarpaulin], and my first thought was, how are they surviving like this, in these conditions”?

“I came to understand that my role was in fact vital, good hygiene in these difficult conditions, can prevent illness, and saves lives.”

Rebeya would visit women in the camps and talked to them. She gained their trust which meant that Caritas Bangladesh were able to plan for latrines to be built in places which women and girls would feel safe using them.

“Rohingya women are very modest and shy, and we needed to respect this, by making sure that latrines were built close to home and had obvious signs saying: ‘women and girls only’. This made an enormous difference for women, and we did the same with the bathing areas.”

Rebeya says:

“I know that a sanitary item, isn’t life-saving – but, it is important, it is crucial in giving dignity back to women and girls who have been through so much suffering.

“The women tell me, that when they see us [Caritas Bangladesh], and they know that they are not forgotten.”

Mother and child in the rain at the Rohingya refugee camp.

Mother and child in the rain at the Rohingya refugee camp.
Photo: Ismail Ferdous/CRS

Caritas has built new latrines in the refugee camp.

Caritas has built new latrines in the refugee camp.
Photo: Ismail Ferdous/CRS

Help the Rohingya refugee crisis today

You can help Rohingya refugees to build homes which are safer during the monsoon.