Kolkata, 1 January 2017. The Bangladesh district struggles to provide amenities to the refugees from Myanmar.
Describing the influx of refugees from Myanmar to southeast Bangladesh as a “forgotten crisis”, Sarat Dash, chief of mission of the International Organisation for Migration in Bangladesh, has said the crisis is worsening in the Rohingya refugee camps.
Mr. Dash, who visited the camps in Cox’s Bazaar district with the Foreign Ministers of Indonesia and Bangladesh, said “34,000 refugees” had moved from Myanmar to Bangladesh since the recent spate of ethnic violence in Rakhine state of Myanmar.
While at least half-a-dozen international humanitarian agencies were working in the area, the situation was worsening with the advent of winter, Mr. Dash said.
“With severe crisis of shelter and food as the winter is approaching, there is a serious need of winter clothes; also an urgent need of medical assistance and psycho-social help,” Mr. Dash said. He said a “lot of the refugees are visibly depressed as they had traumatic experiences”.
Since the beginning of an anti-Rohingya cleansing drive in parts of Myanmar from the early 1990s, three lakh to five lakh refugees have settled in southeastern Bangladesh, according to the National Strategy on Myanmar Refugees report by the Bangladesh Government in 2013.
Besides the 32,000 officially registered refugees, there are nearly 50,000 in the makeshift settlements near the camps, says the Prime Minister’s National Strategy report.
The report also says that another three lakh to five lakh “undocumented Myanmar nationals” are living across Cox’s Bazaar. They are mainly settled in the upazilas (sub-districts) along the 62-km western bank of the Naaf river.
The Foreign Ministers and Mr. Dash visited these sub-districts and the IOM has concluded that 34,000 more refugees have arrived since early October.
“The condition of the refugees already settled is not any good. But since they are staying over a period of time, they have managed to somewhat put together their lives.
But these new people came empty-handed and without resources and thus their living condition is worse than pavement dwellers in Kolkata. Unlike the pavement dwellers, they are living in forest land or uninhabited land,” Mr. Dash said.
As the Rohingya refugees, many of whom speak Bengali, are pouring in large numbers, on an average of 500 a day, the sub-districts are getting crowded by the hour, increasing pressure on hygiene, sanitation and security.
“But do we have an option other than to give them shelter in our tiny plastic thatched boxes,” asked Mahmudulla, a schoolteacher. Mr. Mahmudulla came to Cox’s Bazaar in the early 1990s and speaks urban Bengali.
He has documented the violence on the Rohingyas in Rakhine state on the other side of the Naaf river.
“The villages on the other side, at least 20, are decimated and we could only see the smoke, hear them screaming for help. It is gut-wrenching as I had experienced similar attacks a quarter century ago,” Mr. Mahmudulla told The Hindu on the phone from Cox’s Bazaar.
The photographs, mutilated bodies, charred corpses covered with banana leaves and burning villages, that Mr. Mahmudulla received on his mobile phone, describe the trauma that the Rohingyas are experiencing. Nearly 90 people are officially killed till last week.
While the killings are denied by the Myanmar government, Rohingya refugees in the camps in Bangladesh said they had now “stopped counting the bodies” of their family members.
“Two of my family were killed and my daughter was raped in front of her mother,” said Arshad (name changed), a farmer from Khawar Bil village near Muang Daw town in Rakhine. Mr. Arshad checked in to his cousin’s house in the Nayapara refugee camp in Ukhia sub-district.
Mr. Dash said the refugees were staying with their distant relatives or acquaintances.
Fifteen to a room
“It is locally called “doubling” as the refugees are entering the semi-permanent shack of another refugee family, which perhaps arrived few years ago,” Mr. Dash said. The space shortage was acute. “Fifteen or 16 persons living in a tiny room which has only plastic on all sides.”
At night, the men take their turn to rest in the local mosque.
“The temperature is dropping and there is an immediate need to provide some basic comfort, especially to children,” Mr. Dash said. One in every three children was severely malnourished.
The IOM has set up medical camps, provided drinking water and set up toilets in the camps.
Yet Mr. Dash called it a crisis which has been “forgotten”.
He expects the situation to improve in the New Year.