Cyclone Amphan hits Rohingya camps: How they covered it

View of the sprawling Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. flickr photo by DFID - UK Department for International Development shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

As COVID-19 spreads through Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, this week they faced another threat with the arrival of Cyclone Amphan. Here’s how the media covered the story.


Cyclone Amphan made landfall in Bangladesh and India on May 20. Killing 95 people and leaving widespread destruction in its wake, those affected included the more than one million Rohingya Muslims in refugee camps in and around Cox’s Bazar. Here’s how the regional and international media covered the story.

There were fears the storm would devastate the camps

Forecasters predicted the “super cyclone” would be one of the worst in living memory as it initially appeared to be heading towards the camps. Free Malaysia Today reported that around 300 Rohingya Muslims on Bhasan Char island were moved into storm shelters in preparation. Authorities detained them on the island after they spent four weeks at sea and were turned away by other countries before being rescued by Bangladesh.

However, both the United Nations (UN) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) called for them to be shifted to the mainland, which would offer more safety. Channel News Asia carried quotes from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urging Bangladeshi authorities to act. “While those rescued at sea may be quarantined for public health purposes, they must also be extended the protection they deserve as refugees,” he said, referring to Bangladesh’s justification for not moving them: preventing the spread of coronavirus.

The story made headlines both locally and from much further afield. Dr. Fozia Alvi, whose Humanity Auxilium Foundation supports people in the camps, told CBS in Canada that she feared the cyclone could cause the Rohingya “additional psychological trauma” which might “push their mental and physical health to its limits.”

Writing in Asia Times, Christopher P. Catrambone, who founded the Migrant Offshore Aid Station charity, described their plight as “horrifying and unsurprising” before concluding that, “When it comes to the suffering of the Rohingya, it seems no bitter end is in sight.”

The cyclone missed the camps as other storms brewed

In the end, both the camps in Cox’s Bazar and on Bhasan Char island did not feel the worst impacts of the storm. The Straits Times reported that Bangladesh was “largely spared” although there are concerns about water contamination in the aftermath. New Age Bangladesh confirmed that 330 Rohingya shelters in Cox’s Bazar suffered storm damage, but there were no initial casualties.

However, HRW reported that refugees on Bhasan Char had been afforded little protection. “Our fear that Bhasan Char would become a ‘floating detention center’ has now turned into a fear of a submerged one,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director.

The rights group further alleged that refugees were being abused, denied freedom of movement and provided with limited access to water, food and medical supplies. The Bangladeshi government vociferously rejected those claims, as The Malay Mail reported. Junior Foreign Affairs Minister Shahriar Alam called the allegations “baseless and ill-motivated” while the paper quoted a navy spokesman saying they were being treated well.

Also in the firing line was ASEAN as an institution. New Age Bangladesh reported critical comments from Laetitia Van Den Assum, who is a member of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine. “ASEAN has been notably disappointing on taking action on the Rohingya crisis,” she argued.

Furthermore, Catrambone pointed out in Asia Times that by turning refugee boats away from their waters, ASEAN nations had breached both the Bali Process and international maritime law.

What next for the Rohingya?

Even though the cyclone did not hit the camps directly, the outlook remains bleak for the Rohingya. CNN detailed how women and girls in the camps are vulnerable. “There is a real risk that gender-based violence will increase as the cyclone takes hold,” said Manish Agrawal from International Rescue Committee.

With monsoon season now underway, they can expect more bad weather; heavy rains and landslides have been regular occurrences at the camps in recent years. This exacerbates poor sanitary conditions and leads to more overcrowding—ideal conditions for COVID-19 to spread further.

Mayyu Ali, a refugee inside one of the Cox’s Bazar camps, emphasized that he and his fellow refugees will likely see little respite. Writing in The Washington Post, he gave some idea of what it is like inside the camps, describing how his people continue to meet disaster after disaster.

“From Myanmar’s state-sponsored genocide to the natural disasters, we have overcome so much,” he wrote. “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.”

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