Girls in shantytown walking over precarious bridge over creek (© Altaf Qadri/AP Images)
International teams working with local workers developed more than 35 square hectares of land in the Cox's Bazar refugee camp to make the land safe during the monsoon season. (© Altaf Qadri/AP Images)

Cox’s Bazar, a coastal district in Bangladesh, hosts the world’s largest refugee camp. It also sits directly in the path of some of the worst monsoons in the world, putting the people who live there — more than 2 million Bangladeshis and nearly a million Rohingya Muslims — in danger of floods and landslides.

This year’s monsoon season ended in October with the refugee camps and host communities avoiding widespread devastation. That is due in large part to the work of U.S.-supported United Nations agencies and engineers who worked around the clock to reinforce roads, build canals and stabilize dangerous slopes.

Hilly community of small dwellings (© U.N./K.M. Asad)
International engineering teams stabilized more than 35,000 square meters of slopes during the monsoon season to prevent landslides in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. (© U.N./K.M. Asad)

The camp’s population relies on humanitarian assistance for almost all aspects of their lives, including food, water, education, health care and shelter.

“I really profoundly felt the scope and the enormity of the Rohingya refugee crisis,” said Alice Wells, a senior State Department official who recently traveled to the region. “I want to underscore that the United States is committed to assisting” and resolving this emergency. The U.S. has provided more than $346 million in humanitarian assistance to Bangladesh since this crisis began in August 2017, Wells said.

Why are they there?

Line of people walking along river, carrying people and belongings (© Bernat Armangue/AP Images)
More than 700,000 ethnic Rohingya fled Rakhine State in western Burma in the months following an ethnic cleansing by Burmese security forces. (© Bernat Armangue/AP Images)

The Rohingya are in camps in Cox’s Bazar because they were forced to leave their homes in western Burma. In August 2017, following deadly militant attacks, “security forces responded by launching abhorrent ethnic cleansing of ethnic Rohingya in Burma,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the following August. “The U.S. will continue to hold those responsible accountable.”

Vice President Pence said in his November meeting with Burma’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, “The violence and persecution by military and vigilantes that resulted in driving 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh is without excuse.”

Most Rohingya are Muslims while Burma is 90 percent Buddhist. The Burmese government does not recognize Rohingyas as one of the country’s many ethnic minorities and their freedom of movement and access to services in Rakhine State is severely limited.

A population in danger

The size of the crisis, as well as the speed at which it happened, made for a dangerous situation. The hastily constructed shelters built on loosely packed earth meant that the new arrivals were in danger of flooding and landslides during the monsoon season.

The international community quickly came to their aid to help address the danger, building and repairing more than 55,000 square meters of road to maintain access throughout the camp. International teams also dug and cleared more than 271,000 square meters of new and existing drainage to prevent flooding and landslides.

Laborers working on mound (© UNHCR/Roger Arnold)
Thousands of Rohingya workers built infrastructure and local improvements to make the refugee camp safe during the monsoon season. (© UNHCR/Roger Arnold)

“Through the monsoon we mobilized about 350 local and refugee laborers to maintain road access and drainage pathways,” said Damon Elsworth, an engineering team operations manager. “Improved access means improved security, opportunity and services for the families who live here.”

Resolving the crisis

The United States is supporting Bangladesh’s efforts to address the crisis and has urged Burma to probe the atrocities and create the conditions that allow refugees to repatriate in a safe, dignified and voluntary way.

“The United States is proud to be the leading donor of life-saving assistance to displaced persons, refugees, and host communities in Burma and Bangladesh,” U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said at the United Nations in September.

Wells of the State Department said that “the forcible displacement of the Rohingya [requires] a political solution” in Burma. Until then, “I want to personally thank the government and the people of Bangladesh for their continued generosity in responding to the humanitarian crisis and their efforts to ensure assistance reaches the affected populations.”