Iguacu Blog

When the most vulnerable support the most persecuted

Oct 30, 2017
When the most vulnerable support the most persecuted
Adib Chowdhury
Disaster Research and Response Specialist

Adib holds an MSc in Conflict Studies from the LSE. He has worked with the UNDP and with NATO. He also works as a photojournalist undertaking projects exploring human rights and environmental issues across the Middle East and South Asia and was awarded the Marty Forscher Fellowship Prize for achievements in humanistic photography. Adib speaks English, Bengali, and basic French and Arabic.

Bangladesh and the Rohingya

Bangladesh, one of the most vulnerable countries in the world, is currently home to more than half a million of the world’s most persecuted people: the Rohingya.


Bangladesh is dealing with the heaviest flooding crisis it has faced in decades.

Its susceptibility to annual flooding and seasonal cyclones, combined with its limited coping capacity, places it in the top 5 most vulnerable countries in the world according to the annual World Risk Report.

In late August this year, the seasonal monsoon rains arrived in Bangladesh with unrelenting force. The flooding that ensued had been the worst in 40 years with up to a third of the country being submerged, resulting in over 350,000 Bengalis being internally displaced.

The displacement and aid distributions, in addition to the influx of over 500,000 Rohingya refugees, have placed unprecedented pressure on the Bangladeshi government, now largely dependent on aid supplies from the international community.

August’s flooding destroyed swathes of cropland and staple produce. Aid agencies on the ground are now worried the scale of the crisis in Bangladesh is far larger than initially expected. Further assistance is urgently required to address the fallout of the flooding as well as the humanitarian needs of the Rohingyas.


A newly arrived Rohingya watches over Balukhali camp. | Photo Credit: Adib Chowdhury

The once electric green hills of Balukhali in Bangladesh are now cloaked in a mass of black and blue tents. A few weeks ago there were none. Now, the numbers have swelled to over a thousand. The Balukhali camp is one of the largest in the country, granted upon the goodwill of the government, which allocated more than 2,000 acres of land specifically for sheltering Rohingya refugees.

Districts across Bangladesh, remembering their own experiences of mass displacement, have donated bamboo poles, rice and clothing for the newly arrived Rohingyas.

The land in this area is unusually hilly for Bangladesh, but provides ample space for building shelter and is naturally protected from flooding. The rains however, brings increasing danger to the Rohingya camps. The steps, chiseled into the slopes for building on, now face the risk of collapse due to heavy saturation of the ground and sheer volume of tents being built.

“I fear this ground won’t hold…either we run out of food or out of space to live”, says Jahed Hussain, a newly arrived Rohingya, watching thick grey smoke plumes rise from his razed village just six miles across the border.

Jahed Hussain (right) who fled from the village of Taung Pyo Let Yar in Myanmar, now shelters in Balukhali camp, Bangladesh. | Photo Credit: Adib Chowdhury


Currently, only 25% of the Rohingya refugees have received food support, with local districts initially providing large supplies, before international agencies stepped in. However, some of the food donated locally was poorly distributed, with large trucks pulling up and throwing food to crowds who then wrestled for the supplies.

A local aid distribution group from the Chittagong District hand out supplies to crowds of Rohingya waiting by the roadside. | Photo Credit: Adib Chowdhury

Sanitation and the prevention of disease are an increasing priority. The floodwaters that now surround the camp areas are at serious risk of becoming breeding grounds for deadly diseases such as cholera, malaria, dengue and Japanese encephalitis warns the WHO, which is taking preventative measures to mitigate the risk of disease from flooding. Improving water and sanitation facilities is vital to reduce the risk of flood water polluting drinking supplies.

Although a strong sense of community resilience prevails over the crises, Bangladesh’s coping capacity with the additional responsibility of caring for the Rohingya refugees, has left the country dependent on the work of international agencies. The challenges of this complex and multifaceted crisis will only increase with time. Should international attention wane, and funding reduce, Bangladesh will be left with a great burden to face alone.


It’s not often that natural disasters play a crucial role in triggering independence movements. Bangladesh however, is a country that can trace its own tumultuous conception to a great cyclone. In November 1970, the deadly Bhola cyclone struck what was then known as East Pakistan. The ferocity of the storm, in addition to the neglectful response of the Pakistani government, resulted in one of the region’s worst natural disasters to date, with fatalities believed to be between a quarter and half a million people.

People flee the devastation of cyclone Bhola, East Pakistan, 1970 | Photo Credit: Express Newspapers/Getty Images

The cyclone struck weeks before elections in Pakistan, laying waste to paddy fields and revealing years of neglect by the Pakistani authorities in its wake. The cyclone contributed to an Awami League victory in the province of East Pakistan.

The Awami League, created in opposition to the Pakistani government, formed the leading voice for Bengali independence. The election victory should have resulted in party leader Sheikh Mujib coming into power, but this was not an option at the time for the Pakistani elite.

The Awami League seized the moment for an official declaration of independence.

Pakistan responded, unleashing a military campaign of genocidal intensity, known as Operation Searchlight, with figures still unknown, ranging from 300,000 to 3 million deaths. Within nine months — after a brutal guerrilla war, the displacement of an estimated 10 million people, and an Indian intervention — Bangladesh was formed and recognized internationally in 1972.

Want to learn more about the conflict in Myanmar?  Head to weareiguacu.org/myanmar.

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