Natural disaster

Already desperate, Rohingya camps battered by Cyclone Mocha

With lashing rain and wind speeds as great as 280 kilometres per hour, the storm once again underlined the vulnerability of the Muslim minority group both as refugees in Bangladesh and as internally displaced people in their native Myanamar

May 19, 2023
Already desperate, Rohingya camps battered by Cyclone Mocha
A Rohingya woman stands on her destroyed house at Basara refugee camp in Sittwe on 16 May 2023, after Cyclone Mocha made landfall. (Photo by Sai Aung Main/AFP)

With no shelter and scarce food, thousands of people on the southern coast of the Bay of Bengal are now burying their loved ones or searching for them in the ruins left days after one of the deadliest storms in decades.

On 14 May, Cyclone Mocha briefly overshadowed the Myanmar civil war and its ongoing atrocities even as it smashed the dwellings of thousands displaced by the conflict. The storm ripped a path through the country’s western Rakhine State, killing more than 500 people, most of whom were women and children. High winds and flooding also wiped out entire villages and settlements for internally displaced people (IDP) in bordering Sittwe Township. 

The affected areas are populated by Myanmar minority groups, including the Muslim Rohingya. Long rejected by the Myanmar government, members of this stateless ethnicity were already persecuted and living in poor conditions, whether still in their native Rakhine or just over the border in packed refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. 

“When we received the cyclone alert we were terrified,” said a Rohingya teacher in a Cox’s Bazar camp, whose name was withheld for safety reasons. “Our shelters are made of bamboo and tarpaulin, which is not enough to survive a strong cyclone and we are not allowed to leave the camp regardless of the situation.”

In Cox’s Bazar, the cyclone destroyed about 30,000 shelters in the camps, which have been home to roughly 1 million Rohingya refugees since the Myanmar military brutally expelled them in 2017. 

The teacher had just repaired his shelter before the cyclone, and he was there when the storm hit. But the wind shook the small hut so hard that he feared even the new renovations wouldn’t be strong enough to withstand it.

“I was lucky enough that my shelter resisted the strong wind, but my neighbours’ huts were damaged or completely destroyed,” he said. 

Living with dwindling international aid, now the refugees are faced with another humanitarian crisis. But while those in Bangladesh were allowed to seek refuge within the camps before the storm hit and immediately received international humanitarian aid, those living across the border in Myanmar had no such luck.

Nay San Lwin, co-founder of the advocacy group Free Rohingya Coalition, told the Globe that 90% of Rohingya IDP camps in Sittwe hosting approximately 130,000 people were completely destroyed.

“They are now displaced and have nothing left,” he said. “All of them are currently starving due to the absence of humanitarian assistance.”

The regime had suspended all commercial flights until 18 May to prevent international organisations from entering the affected area to provide aid, claiming that support may only be provided from within the country. 

“This is the same policy they implemented during the 2008 Nargis cyclone, which claimed over 100,000 lives in Myanmar,” Lwin said.

John Quinley, director of the non-governmental organisation Fortify Rights, shared similar concerns. He noted the military junta’s track record of blocking or slowing aid not only during natural disasters, but also in conflict-affected areas throughout the country, including in Rakhine, Kachin and Karen states. 

“Aid has not been systematic, and some humanitarian organisations have not been granted approvals to deliver aid,” he said. Quinley also believed some of the significant effects of the cyclone could have been avoided, mentioning “there was no real effort to evacuate communities in Rakhine State, particularly Rohingya.” 

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Myanmar reported the cyclone crossed the paths of more than 5 million people. It however remains a challenge to run an accurate assessment of the extent of the damage due to poor access due to damaged roads and mobile network services. 

Local and international organisations believe the loss of lives is much higher than the current number and the damage is much worse than expected. The storm hit the coast with wind speeds of up to 280 kilometres per hour making it a category-five cyclone, according to NASA’s earth observatory.

“Just to give you an idea of the force of this cyclone a huge metal telecommunications tower was literally bent in half by the wind gusts,” UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator ad interim Ramanathan Balakrishnan said in a media briefing shortly after the cyclone.

Balakrishnan also called the event a “humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding”.

Although the storm didn’t claim any victims in Bangladesh, thousands of people lost all their food supplies along with their shelters. International organisations operating in the camp, such as the World Food Programme (WFP), are now providing the refugees with materials to repair or rebuild their housing. 

However, the amount provided doesn’t seem to be sufficient to replace what was lost, according to the community teacher in the camp. 

Besides shelter, the refugees are especially alarmed about food shortages. 

“Nobody died here in the camp, but many children are hungry because their families have lost all the rice,” said Ro Maung Hla Myint Arfat, a journalism fixer and photographer in the Cox’s Bazar camps. “Now they need food and emergency supplies, like water and medicine.”

At the beginning of the year, the WFP reduced the monthly food ration from $12 per person to $10, citing budgetary limitations. On 17 May, the agency announced it would further cut the rations down to $8 per person starting in June.

The first rations cut significantly raised tensions in the camp, with residents reporting the money was barely enough to cover basic staples such as rice, onions, cooking oil or other minor supplies. 

Even after the cyclone hit, both Arfat and the teacher said aid providers have extended no additional food support. They called for more humanitarian aid to avoid further deterioration of the situation.

“We are going through a very severe food crisis now,” the community teacher said. “If we don’t have enough food or shelter, our children will try to leave the camp illegally and fall into the hands of traffickers who would exploit them to work for little or no money.”

But the cyclone’s impact was not limited to shelters and living supplies. The millions of people affected by the deadly storm are now also in need of mental health and well-being support as well as financial aid to repair for the loss of crops and closure of local businesses. Severe flooding has also affected neighbouring regions and displaced more than 100,000 people in Magway and Sagaing regions, the OCHA reported.

Sabber Kyaw Min, founder and director of the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative, called for the immediate provision of psychosocial support services to affected individuals, particularly vulnerable populations. 

“Cyclone Mocha has left a profound impact, causing loss of lives, widespread destruction, and significant economic setbacks,” he said. “It is crucial to continue supporting the affected communities in their journey towards rebuilding their lives and strengthening resilience against future natural disasters.”

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