One year ago, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya poured into Bangladesh, fleeing persecution in their home country, Myanmar. Today, more than 900,000 refugees are residing in overcrowded makeshift camps in Cox’s Bazar. With precarious living conditions and no political solution on the horizon, the future of these families remains up in the air.
Violence and Persecution in Myanmar
Since the 1950s, the Rohingya people – a Muslim minority ethnic group from Rakhine State in western Myanmar – have continually been subject to persecution by the government and their armed forces. Unrecognized by the State, the Rohingya are not considered citizens of Myanmar. They are a stateless population, and discrimination, movement restrictions, and limited access to basic services have made them extremely vulnerable.
In late August 2017, a wave of unprecedented violence and persecution against Rohingya civilians began. Rohingya villages were burnt, and survivors speak of a campaign of murder, rape, and other horrific crimes. Within a few months, nearly 700,000 people – half of them children – fled Rakhine, walking for days to seek refuge in Bangladesh.
Life in Cox’s Bazar
Traumatized, malnourished, and in desperate need of humanitarian aid, the newly displaced men, women, and children joined 200,000 additional Rohingya people already living in Bangladesh, who had been displaced by violence in previous years.
Today, they live in makeshift shelters in areas that have been deforested to accommodate hundreds of thousands of people. Though access to basic services such as latrines, water, food, and medical care have improved over the last year, living conditions are still appalling, particularly during the current rainy season.
More than 600,000 Rohingya live in the “mega camp” called Kutupalong Balukhali. The hilly terrain, combined with deforestation and never-ending rain during monsoon season, has caused landslides and floods that are threatening fragile shelters made of only bamboo and plastic sheets. It’s estimated that more than 200,000 people are directly under threat by the dangers caused by the monsoon rains.
At the same time, overcrowding, poverty, lack of access to resources, and poor sanitary conditions all contribute to the spread of illnesses such as diarrhea, dysentery, respiratory illness, and malnutrition. Nutrition surveys show that 38% of the displaced children living in camps are stunted, and 12% are being treated for severe malnutrition.
Action Against Hunger’s Response
As more and more displaced Rohingya arrived from Myanmar last August and September, Action Against Hunger teams rapidly scaled up to respond to their most urgent needs: mobilizing to distribute hot meals, clean water, and psychological support.
Today, we employ a team of nearly 900 employees and more than 1,300 community volunteers, who work day in and day out to support vulnerable people. In one year, more than 700,000 people have benefited from our programs, including support for nutrition, water, sanitation and hygiene, mental support and care practices, food security and livelihoods. Our work includes:
- Every day, more than 11,000 meals are served. Our teams, aided by Rohingya volunteers, run 10 community kitchens, 18 mobile healthcare centers, and 5 healthcare centers that operate 24/7.
- More than 18,500 infants suffering from severe acute malnutrition are being treated.
- 19,000 pregnant and breastfeeding women have benefited from medical assistance and advice on taking care of their and their children’s health.
- More than 350,000 people have received mental and psychological support to treat stress and overcome the traumas they have experienced.
- 38,200 emergency kits for building shelters have been distributed, as well as nearly 24,000 hygiene kits containing soap, detergent, toothbrushes, and menstrual hygiene products.
- More than 230 drinking water points and a thousand latrines have been installed.
- In addition to individual services, our teams have been in charge of certain areas of the camp and have performed nearly 200 interventions to help ensure the safety of the people: construction of stairs and bamboo bridges, strengthening areas prone to landslides, and providing awareness and relocation of families under threat.
An Uncertain Future
The Rohingya people face a precarious future - though Myanmar signed an agreement to authorize the United Nations to come and inspect Rakhine State and to work together on a repatriation process. More than two months after that agreement was signed, international agencies have yet to visit the area. The Bangladesh government has also struggled to accommodate the vast number of displaced Rohingya and is considering moving 100,000 people living in the camps to an island highly susceptible to flooding.
“We have been told that the repatriation process is going to start shortly,” says Mahadi Muhammad, program director for Action Against Hunger work in Cox’s Bazar. “The international organizations are waiting for access to be granted on the other side of the border. Repatriation has to comply with international standards, under a voluntary basis and guaranteeing complete safety.”
When the question of returning home to Myanmar is posed to displaced Rohingya people, the majority give the same answer: “We are not returning without the guarantee that we will no longer be persecuted.”
“For us, the emergency is now,” says Mahadi Muhammad. “People are still suffering. The camps are in a bad shape and only 25 percent of global humanitarian aid funds have been secured.”