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Monsoon rains mean greater peril for Rohingya refugees, aid workers warn

A deeper dive into the day's most notable stories with The National newsletter's Jonathon Gatehouse.

Newsletter: A deeper dive into the day's most notable stories

A Rohingya child looks through the fence at a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on March 22. There are 671,000 people crowded into 20 makeshift camps along the border with Myanmar. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)

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  • Aid workers fear for safety, health of Rohingya refugees as Bangladesh braces for monsoon season
  • The caravan of Central Americans that sparked President Trump's ire on Twitter is actually an annual event that has never made it near the American border
  • Labour strike in France today is disrupting much of the nation's rail system, and there are 34 more "days of action" planned over the next three months
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here

A crisis that threatens to become a disaster

The Rohingya who fled Myanmar last fall found refuge in Bangladesh, but they didn't necessarily find safety.

With 671,000 people crowded into 20 makeshift camps along the border, there have already been problems with communicable — and potentially deadly — diseases such as cholera, diphtheria and measles. Even providing for basic needs like food, clean water and proper sanitation has been a challenge.

A woman walks up a hill in the Kutupalong camp for Rohingya refugees in southern Bangladesh on Feb. 11. As the monsoon season approaches, there are concerns about potential flash floods and landslides in the camps, especially in hilly areas where slopes have been stripped of vegetation. (Andrew RC Marshall/Reuters)
Yet things are set to get much worse.

Monsoon season will begin in a couple of months. The Cox's Bazar district, where many of the camps are located, is one of the world's wettest places, receiving more than 915 millimetres of rain during the average spring and summer.

Flash floods and landslides are expected, especially in hilly areas where slopes have been stripped of vegetation by Rohingya looking for material to build shelters and cook their food.

It's feared that the mud will hamper aid deliveries, which 90 per cent of the refugees rely on for food.

A Rohingya refugee man carries a child across a stream in Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on March 21. As the monsoon season approaches, health officials are worried about the potential spread of water- and mosquito-borne illnesses. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)
And the standing water will bring even more disease, the United Nations warned this week, including diarrhea, hepatitis, and insect-spread illnesses like malaria, dengue and chikungunya.

A coalition of aid groups is warning of the potential for "enormous deaths."

The Bangladeshi government has put aside 500 acres for new, temporary camps, anticipating that as many as 100,000 people now living in low-lying areas will have to be evacuated.

As with all humanitarian crises, needs outstrip available funds, with the UN having recently launched an urgent appeal for $951 million US.  

If all that wasn't enough, now there are reports that at least 10 Rohingya refugees in the Kutapalong-Balukhali region have been killed in wild elephant attacks over the past six months.

Tents cover a hillock at the Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh. Wild elephants have killed several people in the camp. (Dar Yasin/Associated Press)
In response, the UNHCR is building bamboo watch towers around the camps, and recruiting refugee volunteers to form 25 Elephant Response Teams. Each will be equipped with whistles, flashlights and bullhorns to try and scare the endangered Asian elephants away, or at least warn residents that they are coming.

Little wonder that some Rohingya are attempting to find somewhere else to live.

Yesterday, authorities in Malaysia intercepted a boat with 56 members of Myanmar's Muslim minority aboard, seemingly the first migrants who have tried crossing the Andaman Sea.

Canada should take a leadership role in responding to the Rohingya crisis by boosting humanitarian aid, funding development efforts and welcoming refugees, Bob Rae, Canada's special envoy to Myanmar, said in a report released Tuesday morning.

Canadian special envoy Bob Rae released a report on the humanitarian and security crisis in Myanmar at a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
"There are no guarantees of success and many lives are still in the balance," Rae said. "But one thing is certain: if we fail to try, the results will be far worse than if we make the necessary effort."

It seems unlikely that the Rohingya will be returning to their homes in Rakhine state anytime soon. Not only is Myanmar's government unwilling to repatriate them, it seems that new, non-Muslim residents are being sought to take over their houses and farms.

Tribal families from Bangladesh are reportedly being lured across the border into Myanmar by promises of free land and food.

Caravan of no-love

There is no mystery over how one captures Donald Trump's attention — broadcast something on Fox News.

It's just that sometimes it can be a little difficult to figure out exactly what the President of the United States is on about.

Over the past three days, Trump has posted a series of tweets about a "caravan" of Central American refugees in Mexico that he seems to believe is headed for the U.S. border. A threat so grave, apparently, that it has moved the U.S. president to threaten to blow up NAFTA and cancel $127.5 million US in aid to Honduras.

As it turns out, Trump learned about the march from Fox News, which has been pushing a story that has received little attention from other outlets and making claims that the migrants intend to sneak into the U.S. or declare themselves refugees at the border.

However, the protest caravan is actually an annual event, and has never made it anywhere near the American border.

For a decade now, migrants in southern Mexico have been holding an Easter-season "Stations of the Cross" march. It's meant to draw attention to the dangers they face as illegal residents, including beatings, extortion and murder. Many dress in biblical costumes and carry crosses.  

Dozens of Central American migrants traveling with the annual 'Stations of the Cross' caravan sleep at a sports club in Matias Romero, Mexico, on Tuesday. (Felix Marquez/Associated Press)
This year's event was the biggest yet, attracting around 1,100 men, women and children. And many of the participants were fleeing Honduras, a country beset by crime and political violence.

The march, which started in Tapachula near the Guatemalan border, ended in the town of Matias Romero in southern Oaxaca state, about 1,350 kilometres from the Texas border. A day before Trump's latest tweet.

And despite what the president suggests, Mexican authorities have hardly turned a blind eye to Central American migrants.

In a statement released late yesterday, Mexico's interior ministry said it has already deported about 400 of the marchers.

A girl lies awake as Central American migrants traveling with the annual 'Stations of the Cross' caravan sleep at a sports club in Matias Romero, Mexico, on Tuesday. (Felix Marquez/Associated Press)
"Under no circumstances does the Mexican government promote irregular migration," said the communiqué.

It added that the caravan is "a public demonstration that seeks to call attention to the migration phenomenon and the importance of respecting the rights of Central Americans," rather than a threat to U.S. border security.

As this story notes, Mexico deported almost 16,000 Central Americans over the first two months of 2018, and a total of 76,433 in 2017.

During Trump's first year in power, the U.S. deported nearly 215,000 people from around the globe  — 13 per cent fewer than the 250,000 deported in the final year of Barack Obama's presidency.

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If the trains aren't running, this must be France

Rail strikes are something of a tradition in la République Française. Although the labour disruption that kicked off today is an awfully big one.

By tomorrow night's scheduled end, the walkout by SNCF rail workers is expected to have caused the cancellation of 85 per cent of TGV high-speed service and three-quarters of all regional trains, affecting 4.5 million passengers.

Unionized rail employees of the French state-owned railway company SNCF demonstrate in Paris as part of a nationwide strike on April 3. The strike affected more than three quarters of the nation's rail system. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)
And it's just the beginning. There are 34 more "days of action" planned over the next three months, all but guaranteeing the country a three-day work week through the end of June.

The issue is President Emmanuel Macron's attempts to reform the public sector, starting with the healthy pensions and early retirement benefits accorded to employees of France's heavily indebted and money-losing rail system.

The union representing rail workers, the CGT, says Macron's proposed changes "will fix neither the debt issue or that of dysfunction in the railway system," and that the self-described "radical centrist" wants to "destroy the public railways through pure ideological dogmatism."

One thing is clear: the rail strikes are just the latest skirmish in a much wider war.

Deserted access gates are seen at Gare de l'Est train station in Paris on April 3 as three months of planned rolling rail strikes began. The walkouts also affect services ranging from energy to garbage collection. (Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images)
Macron came to power last year vowing to cut 120,000 public sector jobs over five years. His attempts to reduce the red tape around hiring and firing workers has been received as a direct challenge to all unions.

Garbage collectors have joined in today's action, as have some workers from the state owned gas and electricity companies. (Air France employees are also on strike Tuesday and Wednesday, but for a different reason -- their desire for a six per cent wage hike.)

Philippe Martinez, the head of the CGT, is warning that France is on the cusp of another May 1968 moment, when labour unrest sparked a mini-revolution.

Although Macron might find lessons in more recent history.

In 1995, Prime Minister Alain Juppé's attempts to reform pensions, freeze wages and impose budget cuts in the name of fiscal austerity resulted in a general strike, led by the railway union. For 22 days, little moved, and even less work got done until Juppé was forced to abandon his plans.

French students hold a banner which reads 'Stop the selection' during a demonstration in Nantes, France, on Tuesday. (Stephane Mahe/Reuters)
The prime minister never recovered his mojo, and stepped down in the spring of 1997 when it became clear that voters were ready to sweep his centre-right coalition from power.

A decade later, Nicolas Sarkozy experienced the first of many "Black Tuesdays" as almost two million public sector workers — including teachers, nurses and air traffic controllers — walked out over his promise to raise France's official retirement age from 60 to 62.

The disruptions continued through his first three years as president, culminating in 14 general strikes between March and November 2010.

Students hold a banner reading 'Universities to the trains stations. Let's defend public service,' as they join a protest rally in Bordeaux, southwestern France, on April 3. The strikes, set to last until June 28, are seen as the biggest challenge yet to the President's sweeping plans to make France more competitive. (Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images)
Sarkozy fulfilled his pledge to "never surrender," and the retirement reforms were signed into law. But few thanked him. When he ran for re-election in 2012, polls suggested he was the most unpopular president in France's history.

He lost to the Socialist candidate François Hollande that May.

And soon, Sarkozy will face trial on charges of corruption and influence peddling.

Quote of the moment

"The key is that Canadians tune in because they want to. Because they want to share what they hear and see."

- Catherine Tait, the first woman president and CEO of CBC/Radio Canada, laying out her vision for the future of the public broadcaster.

Catherine Tait, the new president and CEO of CBC/Radio-Canada, during a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

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Today in history

April 3, 1966: Beer deaths in Quebec

Dow beer was once among the most popular brews in Quebec. At least until the winter of 1966, when its biggest fans began to die of cardiomyopathy — an irregular heart beat. No conclusive link between the beer and the deaths was ever established, although the men were all heavy consumers, drinking a minimum of eight quarts a day. Suspicion centred on cobalt sulphate, an additive that helped retain foam. Dow dumped its entire stock — over a million gallons — into the St. Lawrence River, but it didn't help. Known forever after as la bière qui tue, Dow sold out to Molson's in 1972.

Beer deaths

2 years ago
A number of people die after drinking Dow beer in Quebec. 7:11

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Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.