More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since August 25 from neighboring Myanmar. Our team is on the ground, providing emergency aid to Rohingya refugees who, having escaped, now live in utter destitution. Gilles Nouziès, HI's head of programs in Asia travelled to Bangladesh to organize activities with our teams. He explains what he saw and what HI is doing to help.
After more than a week in the field, what can you share about the humanitarian crisis facing the Rohingya?
I visited Kutupalong camp, the main refugee camp, where more than 400,000 people who have fled Myanmar live. The number of people in this camp is hard to take in. The tents stretch as far as the eye can see, over nearly 6,200 acres. What’s striking is that there are no public areas, nowhere to organize joint activities. The tents are lined up in rows that go on forever, separated by pathways three-feet wide and a few roads that are hard to use. The temporary shelters are made from plastic sheeting over a bamboo frame. Even the smallest storm would flatten them. Each shelter measures about twenty square meters. It’s big enough for two families on average – about a dozen people. That’s one and half square meters per person. People are crowded. Rohingya refugees live in inhumane conditions.
Is the situation the same in the surrounding areas?
Yes. Unchiprang is a smaller camp with around 30,000 refugees a little further to the south in an area of muddy hills. All of the trees have been cut down for building and heating purposes. Not one tree has been left standing. The ground is bare, with a risk of mudslides. The worst is the wastewater, particularly from latrines, which flows down from the top of the hill to the plain and into the crop fields, which are contaminated.
Which problems need to be tackled immediately?
We need to improve access to drinking water and stop the flow of wastewater. Naturally, there’s already a shortage of drinking water in the region. It’s hard to dig wells. People are drinking shallow groundwater contaminated with fecal matter, something that happens a lot in overcrowded conditions. There’s a real risk of an epidemic. A lot of children I’ve seen have skin problems – they’re covered in spots. It’s also hard for some people to access humanitarian aid. Someone with reduced mobility can’t use the narrow, muddy and sometimes steep pathways between the shelters, which get slippery when it rains. A woman alone with her children who doesn’t want to leave her children by themselves in a shelter, can’t benefit from food distributions, especially since most of them are on the outskirts of the camps. We need to implement a distribution mechanism that’s closer to the most vulnerable refugees.
It’s really important that we identify vulnerable people, pregnant women, older people, people with disabilities, isolated children, and people with injuries or diseases, on so on. Handicap International has expertise in this field and we work in coordination with our seven mobile teams, who have been travelling around the camps for several weeks. In addition, they provide basic medical assistance, rehabilitation and psychological care, and information on other services, to which we direct refugees. We also have seven welcome stations located in the center of the camps, which do the same sort of work. Last week, we also began helping the UN Refugee Agency in the transit points it has set up on the border to identify new arrivals and spot the most vulnerable people. This work is extremely important because a large number of refugees are vulnerable individuals and we want to be sure they are included.
What’s different about this crisis?
The scale. We’ve never had to deal with so many people in such a short period of time. And the numbers are growing each day. We’ve been providing emergency aid for the last two months, population flows have not stabilized and every week the arrival of new refugees means that we’re constantly having to adapt.