First new land ready to help Rohingya refugees move to safer ground before monsoon

Published on 08 May 2018

Preparation of a first new area of land to relocate families most at risk of landslides when the monsoon hits.Courtesy of UNHCR.

Humanitarian agencies working on the Rohingya refugee response today marked the completion of the first new area of land being prepared to relocate families most at risk of landslides when the monsoon hits.

The work is part of a major joint initiative between IOM, UNHCR and WFP. It has involved using dozens of earthmoving machines and a workforce of over 3,500 labourers, including both Rohingya refugees and members of the host community, to prepare the land so that families can move to safer grounds.

An initial 12 acres of newly prepared land is now ready to receive shelters and other key services, including water, hygiene and education facilities, and is capable of providing new homes for nearly 500 families living in some of the most high-risk parts of the refugee site.

"Seeing this first area of land now ready for the next stage of relocation shows the practical and life-saving achievements that can be created from this kind of interagency collaboration to keep refugees safer," said Manuel Marques Pereira, IOM’s Emergency Coordinator in Cox’s Bazar.

"With monsoon season almost upon us we will continue working urgently to prepare more land, coordinate services, secure vital access ways and ensure we are ready to respond to emergency situations when they arise," he added.

Almost 700,000 refugees have fled violence in Myanmar since August 2017, bringing to around 900,000 the total number of Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar district. The vast majority of the refugees are living under tarpaulins and bamboo shelters on steep sandy slopes in the desperately over-crowded mega camp.

Across all the settlements, around 200,000 people have been identified as being at high risk of flood and landslides when Bangladesh’s notorious cyclone season and heavy monsoons hit in the coming weeks. The immediate priority is to try to relocate around 24,000 people at highest risk of landslide disasters.

The Government of Bangladesh recently allocated around 500 acres of land for potential relocation, but due to the topography of the Cox’s Bazar area, where much of the landscape is hilly, only a fraction of that can be made safe for relocation before monsoon which will begin in earnest next month. The area was prone to landslides even before rapid settlement on the slopes made the ground extra vulnerable to erosion, creating added challenges for those working to protect the refugees.

"Our priority is to ensure the safety of refugees during this critical time of year", said Mr. Mohammad Abul Kalam, Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner. "The Government, UN agencies and partners are working tirelessly to ensure more forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals can be relocated to safer areas."

Kevin J. Allen, head of UNHCR’s operations in Cox’s Bazar, said: "We’re very happy to be able to move to the next stage in this ambitious project, which has been a great example inter-agency collaboration, in support of the Government of Bangladesh."

"It will be a race against time to get everything ready, so that the most vulnerable families at high risk of landslides and flooding can be moved to safety before the worst of the monsoon season gets underway", he added.

The joint Site Maintenance Engineering Project (SMEP) between the three agencies is a practical and innovative response to support the Government of Bangladesh in emergency preparedness and response. It was specifically designed to save lives, and reduce landslide and flood risks, as well as to ensure access to the settlements is preserved.

As well as preparing land for relocation, SMEP agencies are working to improve roads, drainage, and build bridges to help ensure life-saving access can continue when the worst weather hits.

Peter Guest, WFP’s Emergency Coordinator, added: ‘’WFP Engineers are building bridges, roads, preparing land for safer relocation, fortifying embankments and clearing drainage channels. We are working to reach all refugees with food and non-food items if and when an area become inaccessible during the monsoon’’.

Crucial SMEP activities include the creation of ten operational centers across the Cox’s Bazar area where pre-positioned machinery will be available to clear vital access ways in the event of landslide and keep key waterways open to prevent blockages leading to floods. In addition to excavating machinery, tools and equipment, these will also include prefabricated bamboo bridges and piped culverts to help reopen damaged access ways as quickly as possible.

But agencies also warned that SMEP and other critical services to help safeguard the refugees is under imminent threat due to a major funding short fall.
The Joint Response Appeal from all key agencies working on the Rohingya response in Cox Bazar has secured just 16 per cent of the total US$950 million needed for the response until the end of the year – leaving a current shortfall of $794 million.

The heads of all three agencies in Cox’s Bazar underscored the urgent need for more funding to allow critical life-saving work to go ahead before monsoon hits.
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For more information please contact:
Fiona MacGregor, IOM fmacgregor@iom.int +88 017 3333 5221
Caroline Gluck, UNHCR gluck@unhcr.org +88 18 7269 9849
Shelley Thakral, WFP shelley.thakral@wfp.org +88 17 5564 2150