Food distribution to newly arrived refugees in Bangladesh. Photo: Kathleen Prior for Action Against Hunger.
Over one month after the outbreak of violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, more than 500,000 refugees uprooted by escalating conflict have fled across the border into Bangladesh. The United Nations has warned that the conflict has now become “the world’s fastest developing refugee emergency,” and if the situation does not improve, more than 800,000 refugees could cross into Bangladesh by the end of the year. The majority of these people are children, women and elderly people: many are traumatized, malnourished, and in acute need of food, safe water, health care and mental health services.
YOU CAN SAVE LIVES
Action Against Hunger’s Country Director in Bangladesh, Nipin Gangadharan, said, “we are working at absolute maximum capacity, and with the utmost urgency, to meet the immediate survival needs of refugees and avert a humanitarian catastrophe. We are deeply committed to helping restore the dignity of these traumatized people.”
More than 90 percent of the refugees who have recently arrived in Bangladesh from Myanmar are sleeping outside in the open air, with no shelter to protect them from wind and heavy rains. These extremely vulnerable women, children, and elderly people have no blankets, no beds, and no food, and fewer than 25 percent of them have access to toilets and showers. In Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, where the majority of refugees have arrived, Action Against Hunger has scaled up its operations and is delivering daily hot meals to newly arrived refugees, as well as safe drinking water, health care, and psychosocial first aid.
According to initial rapid screenings, Action Against Hunger’s emergency teams estimate that among the newly arrived refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, 6 percent of children under the age of five are severely malnourished. If validated by rigorous technical assessments, this would indicate prevalence of severe malnutrition far above the emergency threshold. The refugees have also suffered significant psychological trauma, shock, and stress.
The fall-out of ongoing violence in the country, as exemplified by the plight of refugees and those close to the fighting, threatens many thousands of innocent men, women and children with exposure to disease, inadequate access to clean water, and grave food insecurity. The stories of individuals, their fighting spirit and their loss, in many aspects, are an illustration of the cost of Rakhine’s current instability and the toll it has taken on the average man, woman and child. Nurun, Hasina, Abdul and Kulsuma, who are some of the refugees in the Kutupalong Hunger Action Emergency Centres where emergency food is prepared for people, tell us of their plight.
VOICES FROM BANGLADESH
Nurun, 26, crossed Myanmar’s border into Bangladesh on August 28, three days after violence erupted in Rakhine State. She arrived in Bangladesh with eight of her children. “I had to leave one of my children there and I do not know where my husband is,” Nurun says worried. “When the violence intensified, we ran to hide where we could during the middle of the night. The only priority was to survive.”
Nurun Nahar is concerned about whether her eight-year-old son has crossed the border with someone and hopes to meet her husband and son in Bangladesh where she and the rest of her family have taken refuge in the ongoing crisis. “Yesterday when we entered Bangladesh, we did not know where to go and stayed on the edge of the road. We were hungry and the children were crying. A stranger saw us and offered us food and a place to stay. This morning we were given more food. I am ashamed to ask for more, they are already doing much for us. I wish I could be home in Rakhine,” says Nurun sadly as she attends to her fifteen-day year old son.
Hasina, 27, a single mother of five children, arrived in Bangladesh with her children after spending two nights at the border. When the conflict erupted in the north of Rakhine, her husband was killed in cross-fire. “He was not a target. I was working on the paddy field that day when I learned from my neighbours that he had died as they recounted the incident they had witnessed . That afternoon, I had to flee from my home to save my children. I did not even have time to bury his body.” Her voice grew softer as she shared her story.
Like other refugees, Hasina and her children had to walk many miles in torrential rain, sleep outdoors and hide away in the shrubs to escape violence before reaching Bangladesh. “When we crossed the river, there were relatives of some of the refugees who had come to help them. However, we did not have anyone. It took hours to find help. Then a man from the village came to help us,” says Hasina. Without relatives in Bangladesh, Hasina is afraid to think about the future. She wants to return to Myanmar where her parents remained behind, however she is unsure they will be alive when the family returns.
It was about three o’clock in the morning when Abdul Malek’s family woke to the crackle of gunfire and screams. Three nights after the escalation of violence, Abdul, 48, and his family joined the thousands of families pouring over the border into Bangladesh. “We walked in the dark for eight hours, without stopping. We were afraid of being shot if the military saw us,” says Abdul as he recounted the terrifying experience. Before moving to a refugee settlement, he and his family spent a night in the pitch-black of no-man’s land where the Bangladesh Border Guard closely monitors Myanmar-Bangladesh border.
Abdul discovered a temporary shelter for his family in the settlement, yet he does not know what the future holds. In Rakhine, he was the master of a madrasa, now he feels trapped in a terrible situation, a crisis which appears to have no end in sight. “I am grateful to have at least one meal a day so my family can survive.”
Five months pregnant, twenty-seven year old Kulsuma was evacuated from Bangladesh by her husband and parents after violence broke out and intensified in North Rakhine where she and her family lived. She entered Bangladesh with two of her children, both of whom are under the age of five. “Last year, in October, when the situation got worse, my brother-in-law and his family came to Bangladesh to take refuge. My children and I will stay with them. I hear my parents will try to cross the border tonight to join us. I do not know where we will go in the future. They have burned our houses,” says Kulsuma.
Dildar Begum is from Boli Bazar. She had to flee her home heavily pregnant and gave birth en route to Bangladesh. Her son is now 10-days-old. She also has her two-year-old boy with her. She is living in a makeshift shelter with her husband, and her other children. Action Against Hunger are providing her and her children with food, plus she will benefit from psycho-social support.
Dildar said: “The baby does not have a name. He was born in the hills while we were walking here and making our escape. It was very difficult when the baby came, I was in a lot of pain. There was no water where I gave birth to the baby. So I had to crawl to a stream so that I could wash myself. Then I crawled back. Afterwards, I could not walk. I was so weak. I had to be carried by my brother and my husband, taking turns. And sometimes I could walk for a shot way. We had no medicines, and nothing to take to help my pain. I still don’t feel well enough to eat, but I came here to get some nutrition, I think I will try and eat some liquified food. I just arrived here, and have been given my card. So now I need to go and collect my meal. We are a family of seven, and we have been here for 10-days. Five kids, and three of them are under five-years-old. Our shelter is very far away. We had to walk here, and I left three of the children with my mother. We were born in Myanmar, it is our land. We have always lived there. But now everyone is leaving, so leave too. My house burned, Myanmar is still burning.”
WORKING AT BREAKNECK PACE TO ALLEVIATE SUFFERING
Action Against Hunger’s immediate priorities are to save lives and alleviate suffering through the following interventions.
- Daily distributions of food and water: Every day, Action Against Hunger’s mobile teams are delivering more than 83,000 hot meals and 551,479 liters of safe water to Rohingya refugees in camps and other locations.
- Emergency health care and lifesaving treatment for acute malnutrition: Our emergency teams have also conducted malnutrition screenings for more than 100,000 children and diagnosed over 11,000 malnourished children whom we have referred for admission into our emergency nutrition programs through mobile clinics and in partnership 90 local government-run community health clinics.
- Preventing outbreaks of waterborne disease and improving sanitation: Action Against Hunger is the lead humanitarian NGO collaborating with the UN to provide emergency water, sanitation and hygiene interventions to prevent outbreaks of waterborne diseases.
- Mental health “first aid”: Action Against Hunger has deployed psychologists and mental health counselors to provide psychological first aid to more than 20,000 newly arrived refugees whose health and well-being has been impacted by the trauma, violence, shock, and acute stress.
- Scaling up frontline emergency teams: The organization has mobilized 400 humanitarian staff and more than 500 community volunteers to Cox’s Bazar to respond to the emergency.
Action Against Hunger has been working in Bangladesh since 2007 in response to Cyclone Sidr. The organization launched programs in Cox’s Bazar in 2008, well before the recent influx of refugees from Myanmar, and is one of few major direct frontline humanitarian responders in Cox’s Bazar that was already fully operational and able to scale up significantly to meet the rising level of needs.