For the last 17 months, Humanity & Inclusion has been bringing emergency assistance to thousands of vulnerable Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Teams have identified the most at-risk refugees, including people with injuries, disabilities, and physiological trauma, and have been providing them with rehabilitation, counseling, shelter kits, and other necessities.
Gabriel Perriau, Communications Officer for Humanity & Inclusion Canada, recently visited Cox’s Bazar and shared the following report.
After 30 hours of air travel and a ride in a “tum-tum”—the Bangladeshi version of rickshaw—I was relieved to finally arrive at Cox's Bazar to get a bit of rest. A fishing port and tourist destination located along a 75-mile stretch of beaches, Cox's Bazar attracts the richest Bangladeshis. Paradoxically, this small seaside town has also become a hub for foreign humanitarian aid staff who work at the nearby Rohingya refugee camps.
The next day would be my first visit to a refugee camp, Ukhiya, which is crowded with more than 625,000 people, all waiting for a better future. The camp was formed in 1991 by a small group Rohingyas fleeing violence in Myanmar and has expanded dramatically since 2016 with the massive new influxes of Rohingyas.
In the morning, we drove some 20 miles out of the city. Gradually, the jungle gave way to a bleak landscape of makeshift shelters crisscrossed with narrow paths cut into the red soil. Plastic tarps and thatched roofs stretched for miles. The scenery was striking, but the sweltering heat was even more powerful.
To help us understand the difficulties the Rohingyas are facing, our local Humanity & Inclusion colleagues took us to meet several beneficiaries. First, we met Ali, an elderly man who had experienced a stroke that left him paralyzed on his left side. Ali explained to us how hard it is for someone with mobility challenges as nothing in the camp is designed for people with disabilities.
We then visited Sokina, a young woman who is permanently bedridden due to cerebral palsy. She could not speak, but when her eyes fixed on mine, I felt a sense of her suffering.
With each harrowing story I heard, I struggled to walk away. I felt the appreciation the beneficiaries and their families had for the HI staff supporting them. I could see how vital our work is to them.
Later, at an HI rehabilitation clinic, we met six-year-old Hamas and his father, Saidunamin. The physical therapist performed exercises with Hamas, who has cerebral palsy, while his father watched closely. At home, Saidunamin is Hamas's primary caretaker. Four of Saidunamin's six children have some form of disability. This is a significant burden for a family in a refugee camp like Ukhiya, with its rough roads and near complete lack of proper facilities.
With tears in his eyes, Saidunhamin told us how he completely relies on help from aid organizations to get by. The physical therapist tried to comfort him while I looked on, unable help.
Once the session ended, Saidunamin stood up and took his boy in his arms. He told the physical therapist, "shukria"—thank you—and began the long walk back home along a dusty path. My colleagues and I got into our small Toyota truck and headed back our hotel in Cox's Bazar.
At home, the newspapers occasionally mention the Rohingyas' struggle, and our government emphasizes the urgency of their situation. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for what I witnessed firsthand. It's hard to remain indifferent to the fate of these men, women, and children. They are thousands of miles away from us, but their humanity shows us how alike we are.
Help ensure critical aid reaches families who have fled with nothing.
Humanitarian and civil society agencies working in Rakhine State in Myanmar and in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh are deeply concerned that the repatriation of refugees will commence in mid-November, according to an announcement of the Joint Working Group of the Governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar on October 30, 2018.
The Governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh have made assurances to the refugees and the international community that repatriation will only happen when it is safe, voluntary and dignified. We call on both governments to stand by their commitments.
The UN has repeatedly stated that conditions in Myanmar are not conducive to return at this time. Refugees continue to flee Myanmar and facilitating repatriation now would be premature. The involuntary return of refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar, where their lives and safety remain at grave risk, is a violation of the fundamental principle of non-refoulement.
Refugees have consistently told us that they want to return to their own homes and places of origin, or to places of their choice. They want guarantees that they can enjoy equal rights and citizenship. They want assurances that the extreme human rights violations they have suffered will stop, and those responsible for the violence they fled will be brought to justice. They do not want to return to conditions of confinement with no freedom of movement or access to services and livelihoods. They fear that these conditions will become permanent, like the situation in Central Rakhine State where 128,000 Rohingya and other Muslims have been confined to camps with no freedom of movement for over six years.
Most of all, refugees tell us that they are afraid. They fled to Bangladesh to seek safety and they are very grateful to the Government of Bangladesh for giving them a safe haven. However, they are terrified about what will happen to them if they are returned to Myanmar now, and distressed by the lack of information they have received.
"We really want to go back, but not without citizenship...," says a refugee woman living in camps, in her mid-thirties. "They must give us citizenship and a normal life, like the other people are living in Myanmar…. They need to keep us in peace and not hurt us.
I have a brother back in Myanmar. … They are still afraid to sleep at night. They are still afraid to be killed in their beds. After coming here, through the blessings of Allah and the Bangladesh government, we can sleep at night. But my brother, he cannot sleep at night.”
As the UN agency mandated with the protection of refugees, UNHCR must play a key role in any organized return process, including providing refugees with objective, up-to-date, and accurate information in relevant languages and formats to allow them to make genuinely free and informed choices about whether and when they would like to exercise their right to return, obtaining their consent and monitoring that conditions are safe for return in Myanmar.
We call on the Governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar to uphold their commitments, and ensure that refugees in Bangladesh are able to make free and informed choices about return, based on access to full and impartial information about conditions in Rakhine State. UN agencies should have unimpeded access to all parts of Rakhine State in order to provide this information and to monitor the situation in areas of potential return.
Note to editors
- For further information about conditions necessary for safe and voluntary return please see a joint statement by INGOs in Myanmar issued on December 8, 2017.
- Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina publicly affirmed Bangladesh’s commitment to not return Rohingya refugees to Myanmar until the conditions are conducive including “guaranteeing protection, rights and pathway to citizenship for all Rohingyas” at her UNGA statement on September 25, 2018 in New York. The Government of Myanmar has also made public statements that refugees should return “voluntarily in safety and dignity."
- For further information about human rights conditions inside Myanmar see the full report of the Independent International Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar published on September 18, 2018.
- The fundamental principle of non-refoulement is the cornerstone of international refugee protection and prevents the return or expulsion of a refugee “in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion." [Article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention]. Even States that are not signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention are bound by the principle of non-refoulement which is a recognized principle of customary international law. Human rights law (the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture, and the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) also prohibit the return or expulsion of a person to a country where they would be in danger of torture or persecution. For more information – see UNHCR Note on the Principle of Non-Refoulement.
- For more information on international standards relating to Voluntary Repatriation, see UNHCR Handbook on Voluntary Repatriation.
Photo caption: Rohingya women wait for humanitarian aid at a refugee camp in Bangladesh where HI works.
In August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar for Cox's Bazaar in Bangladesh, joining tens and thousands of others. Humanity & Inclusion has 200 staff on the ground, providing assistance to more than 30,000 people.
Jean-Loup Gouot, Director of HI in Bangladesh explains the dire situation:
Humanity & Inclusion assisted more than 30,000 Rohingya refugees in the Kutupalong, Balukhali, Unchipranget, and Nayapara camps since September 2017. Our teams provided rehabilitation care to more than 8,000 people with injuries, reduced mobility or disabilities, along with psychological support, and organized fun activities for children. We also distributed crutches, wheelchairs, and other mobility devices, as well as hygiene kits, kitchen utensils, blankets, and food rations. We also set up two logistics platforms and provided a fleet of 346 trucks to help store and transport humanitarian equipment for HI and other humanitarian organizations.
With more than 900,000 Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh, they find it difficult to access health care, food, clean water, and education, and remain highly dependent on humanitarian aid. Their living conditions are harsh. Tensions have flared between local people and refugees over access to basic services (health care, education, etc.), and the allocation of already limited natural resources. The situation remains critical, and though the emergency situation has stabilized, it is steadily turning into a “chronic” crisis.
We work to ensure that all vulnerable individuals—people with disabilities, older people, pregnant women, and children—have access to rehabilitation care, psychological support, and basic services. We also want to make sure that all children, with or without disabilities, have equal access to education. HI assists some 30 schools, where we train teachers, make schools accessible (adding ramps, etc.), and help raise the awareness of families to send their children to school. This project alone has helped 500 children with disabilities access an education.
HI has helped more than 30,000 people since the start of the crisis:
- Provided rehabilitation care to more than 8,000 people and psychosocial support to more than 8,500
- Distributed 1,000 mobility aids such as wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, etc.
- Set up 2 humanitarian equipment storage centers
- Provided 346 trucks to transport humanitarian aid for HI and other organizations
- 1,000 hygiene kits to more than 4,000 beneficiaries
- 5,000 food rations to more than 24,000 beneficiaries
- 900+ accommodation kits
It’s monsoon season in the Kutupalong refugee camp in southern Bangladesh. The ground is muddy and slippery. Seven-year-old Saiful steps cautiously along the path to school. “I’m afraid of falling with my artificial leg,” he says, surrounded by his school friends. Saiful and his family live in the Rohingya registered refugee camp in Kutupalong, Bangladesh. At age two, he lost his left leg due to a congenital malformation. With support from HI, he has been fitted with an artificial leg and can now walk and attend school.
Searching for safety
Like hundreds of thousands of other Rohingya families, Noor Nahar and her husband, Mohammed Alom, left Myanmar in search of safety. After a long journey by boat and bus, Saiful’s parents arrived in Dhecua Palong camp before moving to Kutupalong refugee camp in 1993. They settled down, and their family gradually grew. Their sixth child, Saiful, was born in 2009.
“His right foot was deformed and turned inward,” his mother explains. “It got worse and became infected. They said it was osteomyelitis, inflammation of the bone marrow and bone. The doctors told us several times that it needed to be amputated. We just couldn’t imagine doing that.”
Over the course of two years, Saiful visited hospitals in the region on more than ten occasions. Visit after visit, the advice was always the same: Saiful needed an amputation. His parents resisted and refused to authorize the operation. Saiful would keep his leg.
Saiful had to take antibiotics on a regular basis. Then one morning, he woke up and couldn’t move his legs or blink his eyes. He was rushed to Cox’s Bazar Hospital where he had his right leg amputated. “We were miserable and felt demoralized. Saiful did too. He became isolated, and didn’t want to go out for fear he would fall. And us, we were exhausted.”
First steps with a new leg
In 2013, HI physical therapists met Saiful in the refugee camp. “He was shy and wasn’t moving around much,” explains Bayzed Hossain, HI’s disability officer in Bangladesh. “We’re working to ensure he attends rehabilitation sessions and does exercises to restore his flexibility and to firm up his limbs. We’ve also set up parallel bars close to his home so he can get regular exercise. And we’re training his parents to conduct physical therapy exercises between sessions. But most important of all, in 2015, at age six, Saiful got his first artificial leg and took his first steps.”
“We’d given up hope,” his father explains. “We thought Saiful would never walk again. His artificial leg changed everything. Our boy is now learning to walk and going to school. He made friends and he’s more confident now.”
In the classroom
It’s June 2016 and Saiful, 7, is writing on the blackboard. “Saiful is cheerful and fits in well,” his teacher explains. “He’s supported by a group of teachers who go around with him. We’ve made a few adjustments to make him more comfortable. HI trained us on how to include children with disabilities in the classroom as best as we can.”
Saiful also takes part in the sport and leisure activities organized by HI, which brings together more than 800 children with and without disabilities. “Khelain arto besi gom lage” – “I love to play!,” says Saiful.
Ongoing rehabilitation care
Today, with support from HI, Saiful is more autonomous, better integrated, and attends school. His confidence has grown, but his situation is still complicated. “Saiful needs to improve his balance as he recently fell and burned himself,” Bayzed Hossain says. “He needs to firm up his limbs and become more flexible. And he’ll need a new artificial leg next year, as he continues to grow.”
"HI’s support is vital to us,” his mother adds. “But life in the refugee camp is tough. We have seven children and we live in a single room. There’s no privacy. It’s hard to access water and sanitary facilities, and hygiene is very bad. There’s mud everywhere in the monsoon season, and the heat is unbearable in the dry season. No one works here and not all of the children go to school. It’s awful not knowing what the future holds. The only thing we want is to finally feel at home, somewhere.”
Saiful returns home from school for the day. He’s getting ready to meet up with his friends to play marbles. Before he says goodbye, our team asks him what he’d like to do when he’s older. Saiful responds without missing a beat: “Ai dorwayrea asmane urium” – “When I grow up I’m going to fly!”
More than 9,000 Rohingya have been affected by floods and landslides in Bangladesh since June. HI teams continue to assist affected populations amidst a challenging environment.
In August 2017, HI launched an emergency response to assist hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who have fled Myanmar. Since June 2018, these already vulnerable people have had to face torrential rain, floods, and landslides, making it difficult for our teams to reach individuals and deliver humanitarian supplies.
“Nine thousand refugees are affected by the floods and have been urgently relocated to other areas of the camp,” Jean-Loup Gouot, director of HI in Bangladesh explains. “This situation weakens an already vulnerable population who live in precarious conditions and are particularly exposed to the risk of natural disasters such as cyclones. There’s also a threat of cholera epidemics. Those affected urgently need a weather-resistant shelter, and access to water, food, and health care.”
“We continue to provide rehabilitation care and psychological support to the most vulnerable and help deliver humanitarian aid to refugees. But due to bad weather, we only have access to 70% of our response areas. We are looking into alternative ways to access the most vulnerable individuals and to give them the support they need," adds Jean-Loup Gouot.
Our projects in aid of Rohingya refugees
Since August 2017, HI has assisted more than 24,000 Rohingya refugees in the Kutupalong, Balukhali, Unchipranget, and Nayapara camps. Our actions to date:
- Deployed 10 mobile teams, consisting of physical therapists, psychosocial wurkers, nurses, protection workers, and sports educations, who travel to the camps to identify the most vulnerable people and offer them rehabilitation care, psychological support, and recreational activities.
- Provided rehabilitation care in homes and hospitals in Cox’s Bazar to more than 8,000 people.
- Supplied more than 1,000 mobility aids such as crutches, wheelchairs, and walkers to people in need.
- Provided individual or group psychological support to more than 8,500 people.
- Arranged two storage areas in Unchiprang and Dhumdumia to store the equipment of other international humanitarian organizations.
- Arranged a fleet of 346 trucks carrying more than 35 cubic feet of humanitarian equipment (hygiene kits, mobility aids, etc.).
- Distributed hygiene kits to more than 4,000 people.
- Distributed 5,000 food rations and more than 900 accommodation kits to vulnerable individuals.
As of May 2018, more than 905,000 Rohingya have crossed the Myanmar border and taken refuge in Bangladesh. They are exhausted, frightened, and in desperate need of basic aid, psychosocial support, and rehabilitation care. HI has more than 200 staff on the ground, working to support the most vulnerable, including people with disabilities.
More than 9,000 Rohingya have been affected by floods and landslides in Bangladesh since June 2018. HI teams continue to assist affected populations amidst a challenging environment.
Lalu was lying on a straw mat when our teams met her in October. Born with cerebral palsy, and forced to flee her home in Myanmar weeks before, she had no way to sit up and certainly couldn’t go outside.
Since August, nearly 700,000 Rohingyas like Lalu have crossed the Myanmar border for refuge in Bangladesh. They arrive exhausted, frightened, and in desperate need of basic aid, psychosocial support, and rehabilitation care.
“For Lalu, as for many refugees with a physical disability, the first difficulty in a camp is getting around,” explains Paola Valdettaro, Humanity & Inclusion’s head of mission in Bangladesh. The drainage of roads being almost nonexistent, refugees must dig canals and build bridges with sandbags, making it almost impossible for people with physical disabilities to travel.
Access to water points, health centers, schools, toilets, and other basic services is also a challenge. Sometimes refugees have to go to the other side of the camp just to get food.
Lalu met Humanity & Inclusion in October, and her situation changed within days. Thanks to support from our donors, Lalu is receiving physical therapy sessions that allow her to regain more and more mobility. She also has an armchair which allows her to sit up and move around with support.
It will take months of rehabilitation before Lalu can sit up properly and have enough strength in her arms to be able to move independently. In the meantime, her family cleared the entrance to their shelter by filling the holes in the ground and removing tree roots, so Lalu can go outside to feel the sun on her face and make new friends.
Thanks to you, Humanity & Inclusion has more than 300 staff working in Bangladesh to support the most vulnerable refugees with basic and specific aid, so that people with disabilities like Lalu can live in dignity.
The largest refugee camp in the world is built on tree-stripped hills in a flood-prone area of southern Bangladesh. With annual rains expected to arrive in April and the threat of cyclones looming, Humanity & Inclusion staff in the camps are extremely concerned about the impact of flooding and landslides.
In August 2017, Rohingya refugees fled in masses from neighboring Myanmar and set up rudimentary shelters across a 3,000 acre area in the Cox’s Bazar region of Bangladesh. Kutupalong-Balukhali camp now hosts over 600,000 people and is the largest and most densely populated refugee settlement in the world.
“The threat posed by the upcoming rainy season is likely to worsen from April to August” explains Sophie Dechaux, HI Country Director in Bangladesh. “Almost all trees and shrubs have been cleared to make space for shelters and many have been built on steep hillsides. When the rains arrive, the ground will be unable to absorb the water so we are expecting significant flooding and multiple landslides”
The effects are likely to put even greater strain on already stretched humanitarian services. “Families will be forced to move into safer areas; they will need new shelters. Overcrowding and standing flood water will create ideal conditions for waterborne diseases.”
HI has been supporting the most vulnerable people in the camps since the beginning of the emergency in August 2017. The challenges of the coming months will disproportionately affect our beneficiaries. People with physical disabilities will not be able to move around the camp to access services due to floods and many may not be able to move quickly in the case of a landslide.
HI is working with local authorities and coordinating with other humanitarian organizations to prepare. Our priority is to ensure that vulnerable people are taken into account and will still have access to the support they need.
HI physical therapist, Farhana, works in Kutupalong Camp in Bangladesh, which has become one of the largest refugee settlements in the world. Ibrahim is one of more than 600,000 Rohingya refugees who fled when violence broke out in Myanmar in August 2017 and one of many who sustained life-changing injuries. Farhana shares her experience of meeting Ibrahim and the progress they have made.
“The first time I met Ibrahim was very difficult,” Farhana explains. “After several weeks lying in bed, unable to move, he was very frustrated and had lost all hope. He was withdrawn, uncooperative, and would not even try to sit up.
“Ibrahim is a Rohingya from Rakhine state in Myanmar. He ran from his village when it was attacked in August but he was caught, severely beaten and left for dead. The attack caused serious damage to his spinal cord, leaving his lower body paralyzed.
“During that first meeting, I realized how drastically Ibrahim’s life had changed. Just a few months earlier, he had been a healthy shopkeeper, providing for his wife and two children. Now, he finds himself lying under tarpaulins and completely dependent on his family. I knew that we were starting a long journey together and that providing psychological support would be just as important as the physical care.
“Now, two months on, I really look forward to seeing Ibrahim and I know how important my visits are for him. Progress is slow, which is normal, but he is very motivated and keen to practice the exercises I have shown him.
“Last month, HI provided Ibrahim with a wheelchair and we have been working together to build the strength in his core and arms so that he can balance and push himself. Simply being able to leave his shelter, to buy a few things and chat with neighbors, has made a huge difference to his health and mood; we joke together now and talk about the future.
“This has been my first experience working in a refugee context and, at times, I find the conditions very challenging. Seeing Ibrahim’s progress and the difference my colleagues and I are making to his life is what motivates me every day.”
Humanity & Inclusion’s team of 300 staff have been responding to the urgent needs of Rohingya refugees since the outbreak of the crisis in August 2017.
HI physical therapist, Rubel, walks through a narrow alleyway at the edge of B-block in Unchiprang Camp in Bangladesh. He has been informed that there is a lady living here who has not been able to move for six weeks. He is searching for the right tent. Neighbors show him the way to a bamboo structure lined with thick black tarpaulin, about five square meters large. Noorayesha can just be seen through the doorway lying on a thin mat on the dirt floor; her daughter, Fatima invites Rubel in.
Noorayesha is 55 years old. She and her three adult daughters fled Myanmar in August, when their village was attacked. Noorayesha’s husband was brutally slashed with machetes and died instantly. The women ran and hid in the hills and then walked for four days to the Bangladesh border; crossing deep rivers to reach safety.
Like more than 625,000 other Rohingya refugees now living in unofficial and makeshift refugee settlements, the family has faced a continuous struggle to access food, water, and shelter. Just as things were becoming more stable, Noorayesha suddenly lost almost all feeling in the left side of her body; most likely as the result of a stroke.
Rubel begins a preliminary physical assessment, asking Noorayesha to clench her fists or raise her legs. He needs to assess which movements she can and cannot make and how this is affecting her quality of life. Fatima explains that she and her sisters have to help their mother with most daily tasks; sitting up, washing, dressing and going to the toilet. They are struggling to encourage her to eat and cannot access enough drinking water. Noorayesha never leaves the tent.
Rubel carefully shows Fatima how to conduct a series of exercises that may help to regain some movement in her mother’s arms, legs and hips. He explains to the whole family that these exercises need to be carried out ten times a day, every day and that he will return in five days to assess their progress. He will bring a bed pan and toilet chair with him.
As Rubel leaves, Norrayesha says that she does not want to be a burden on her family; that even if she can only have her left hand back, it would help. Rubel replies that he is hopeful.