In late August 2017, violence and persecution in Rakhine State, Myanmar, forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee for their lives and seek refuge in Bangladesh. Two years later, more than one million people live in the Cox’s Bazar region and face instability, poverty, malnutrition, and other health issues.
Action Against Hunger has worked in Cox’s Bazar since 2007 and we were among the first to help the Rohingya when they arrived in Bangladesh. Today, our team - powered by 900 staff and some 1,300 volunteers - is helping hundreds of thousands of people.
Life in the camps is difficult: sanitation continues to be poor, malnutrition rates are high, and the area is vulnerable to monsoons and landslides. The trauma of displacement and the impact of the brutal military crackdown still reverberates.
Fleeing for their lives
Mohammed Riaz, 17, lived in a village called Buthidaung in Rakhine State, Myanmar, when the soldiers came in August 2017.
“It happened so quickly,” he remembers. Mohammed escaped the violence and was able to reunite with his mother in Bangladesh, but his brother and two sisters did not make it. “Even if I [could have] rescued them, I was so scared.”
Roshida Begum, 35, lost her husband in the violence and fled with her six children.
“There was bombing, shooting and burning of houses. I will never know why,” Roshida Begum, 35, says sadly. Her husband was killed, and she was forced to flee with her six children. “I ran with my uncle and children and we hid in the hills. The journey was terrible. When we got to the border, I had to beg for money for medicine. My children became sick.”
Saving lives in Bangladesh
“Many arrived in a really bad condition. I saw ten times more people than I was used to seeing,” says Shaki Rani Bose, an Action Against Hunger Health Education Officer.
At one point in the height of the crisis, our teams in Bangladesh were treating 3,679 children under five years old for acute malnutrition each day.
“We are helping children to get out of hunger and have better lives in the future.” said Plabon Sarkar, Senior Health Officer at Action Against Hunger Bangladesh. “We have saved so many lives here.”
“We have a second chance. If we hadn’t found kindness and help here, I don’t think we would have survived,” said Roshida. “The children are better physically now thanks to the meals we are given here.”
A long road to recovery
Many refugees suffer from mental health issues after their traumatic experiences fleeing Myanmar. Our teams host stress management sessions and provide individual and group sessions to help Rohingya cope with their violent memories.
“Psychological first aid must always be closely linked with nutrition programs in large-scale emergencies like this,” said Farhana Rahman, Mental Health Director at Action Against Hunger Bangladesh. “If you are stressed you will not be able to eat, sleep or maintain a healthy life. It’s that simple.”
“I feel a bit more stable, day by day. I used to feel very alone. I didn’t think anyone wanted to listen,” says Mohammed Tayob, who received psychosocial support. “I wanted justice for my parents. It was a relief to find people who understood the same things as me. Today, when I share my story, I feel supported. I can cope better with the future, whatever it may bring.”
Working in the camps can take a toll on aid workers, too. “We have heard lots of stories of unspeakable brutality. Some of the cases I have seen have been very complicated and the challenges refugees face are unbearable,” says Shaki Rani Bose, who supports hundreds of pregnant and breastfeeding mothers.
“I feel good that they are in a safe place now,” she continues, sharing how she continues to find reasons for hope each day. “There is someone beside them who cares about them. I always see some smiling and encouraging faces, and that’s what makes me get up every morning.”
By the numbers: Action Against Hunger’s work to support the Rohingya
Lack of food security, precarious living conditions, and lack of hygiene have resulted in high rates of malnutrition for both refugees and host communities. Action Against Hunger’s teams in Cox’s Bazar take a holistic approach to preventing and reducing hunger by improving health services, increasing access to water, sanitation, and hygiene, improving food security, and providing protection in emergencies.
Between August 2017 and the end of 2018, our 900 staff and more than 1300 volunteers have:
- Diagnosed and treated 22,588 severely malnourished children
- Distributed 42,768 kits to help the most vulnerable families build makeshift shelters.
- Relocated 351 families in landslide-prone areas.
- Provided psychological first aid to 151,120 Rohingyas
- Screened 77,728 children for malnutrition each month in 25 outpatient and inpatient health centers
- Created 12 community kitchens that serve more than 5,000 meals a day for the most vulnerable populations
- Installed 232 water points and 4,000 latrines
- Distributed 52,496 hygiene kits and conducted 2,731 hygiene awareness sessions to prevent the spread of disease
Two years after the crisis began, Action Against Hunger’s staff in Bangladesh remain committed to saving lives and to speaking up for the rights of Rohingya people.