It shouldn’t take a Cyclone for us to care about the Rohingya

25 May 2023

Cyclone Mocha reminds us how the Rohingya people face ongoing vulnerability and dependence on international aid.


MSF team member walks through the shelters of Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. © Saikat Mojumder/MS

As Cyclone Mocha made landfall in Bangladesh and Myanmar on 14 May, local people and the humanitarian community nervously held their breath. Not only was it a category five-level cyclone—the highest alert level—its path was predicted to go straight through the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox's Bazar; a camp housing one million Rohingya refugees, who have fled multiple bouts of violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. 

In anticipation of a crisis, aid agencies prepared, by pre-positioning essential supplies such as food, water purification tablets, and medicines. They took steps to secure facilities, provide emergency cash distributions, and prepare health facilities to manage the expected aftermath. More than 300,000 Bangladeshi residents were evacuated to shelters; however, all attempts to advocate to local authorities in Bangladesh to afford the same support to Rohingya were denied. These tight movement restrictions meant they were confined to their temporary shelters, and were relying on luck. 

The Rohingya refugees’ bamboo and tarpaulin shelters are not built for strong winds, let alone a cyclone; so when the worst of the cyclone missed the camps, the international aid community let out a collective sigh of relief. While tragically eight people still lost their lives, and hundreds of shelters were destroyed in Cox’s Bazar District, the impact was lighter than had been feared. 


The home of a Rohingya family in Butterworth, Penang. © Kit Chan

The neighbouring Myanmar state of Rakhine was not so relatively fortunate. The state experienced significant damage as a result of the cyclone's landfall, with 70 per cent of the area affected. The majority of houses, approximately 90 per cent, were left without roofs, and a total of 242,233 houses were damaged. Additionally, the cyclone caused destruction to entire herds of livestock, crops, and other means of livelihood.  Almost 200 people were killed, thankfully much lower than could have been expected due to pre-emptive evacuations. 

Rakhine state is home to the Rohingya, the majority of whom have been internally displaced as a result of targeted, state-sponsored persecution and live in open-air prison-like conditions. They are the world's largest stateless population, as well as one of the most persecuted, with their lives in Rakhine and Bangladesh synonymous with their total lack of freedom. 

Efforts are underway in Myanmar to provide vital assistance to the hundreds of thousands of residents living in the aftermath of the disaster. Emergency shelter, water, and food are among the top priorities as the humanitarian community works tirelessly to address the urgent needs of those affected. With every passing day, the threat of water-borne diseases such as cholera and dysentery only escalate. Reports of these ailments, acute watery diarrhoea and other related illnesses, have started to emerge, underscoring the urgency of the situation. This situation calls for urgent action to ensure the health and wellbeing of affected communities. The humanitarian situation in Rakhine state remains extremely concerning, with limited access granted to international NGOs. The number of organisations present in the region has dwindled, exacerbating the situation further, particularly in the wake of the 2021 coup. 

The cyclone caused destruction to entire herds of livestock, crops, and other means of livelihood. 

For over six years, I have worked on and off in the Rohingya camps located in Cox's Bazar, and have experienced the annual cyclone season, which varies in intensity year on year. In 2019, I witnessed ferocious winds turn loose bamboo into projectiles, spearing sheet metal with ease — including our own clinic. It is a terrifying experience that is also, unfortunately, very predictable. The Rohingya, perpetually displaced and disempowered, are as powerless in the face of this arbitrary destruction as they are to the whims of national governments. Statelessness has robbed them of any practical sense of agency over their wellbeing. 

MSF has worked alongside the Rohingya community for over 50 years. Cyclone Mocha serves as a reminder of how desperate and precarious their lives are, how they are entirely dependent on international support for their basic protection and livelihoods.     

MSF has seen first-hand the steadily deteriorating conditions in the camps, an alarming trend that predates Cyclone Mocha, and can be attributed in large part to a marked decline in aid funding. As a result, water and sanitation facilities are increasingly inadequate, while food rations have also been severely reduced, with another cut expected in June, dropping to a meagre $8 per person per month.

The Rohingya, perpetually displaced and disempowered, are as powerless in the face of this arbitrary destruction as they are to the whims of national governments.

Arunn Jegan

In the wake of these grim conditions, MSF clinics have been inundated with patients suffering from a variety of ailments. While various skin conditions, scabies and acute watery diarrhoea are most prevalent, the escalating crisis does not spare those battling chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension, who are wholly dependent on consistent access to essential medication.

The plight of the Rohingya must remain at the forefront of the international community's consciousness, now more than ever. However, as global attention shifts to other crises in countries such as Ukraine and Sudan, we see the lifeline to the Rohingya correspondingly diminish. It is incumbent on countries like Australia, having made significant contributions to humanitarian aid in the region, to ensure the Rohingya's plight does not fade from the international community's consciousness. Australia’s official policies and public positioning must reflect the desperation of this ongoing crisis, as the support it offers could be the decisive factor between survival and despair for this resilient community, ensuring that the plight of the Rohingya does not recede into the shadows.

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