Crowded into sprawling camps of polythene sheeting, around a million people who have sought safety in Bangladesh amid violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state are now facing a future of uncertainty and need.
“We would go back if it is safe to do so,” says Dil Mohammad, who says he is in his 40’s but looks older. He, his sisters and their children left their home in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in the dead of night after flames began to engulf houses in a nearby village.
They sit outside their tent in the transit centre, housing many of the most vulnerable new arrivals, where Red Cross Red Crescent teams have been providing medical help.
As smoke from a cooking fire swirls around him, he cannot help but remember the flames that engulfed houses back in Myanmar. He says they had to leave behind a blind younger brother unable to make the 15-day journey. He has no idea when the rest of the family might be able to return to their home.
With hundreds more often arriving daily, humanitarian organizations including the Red Cross Red Crescent are increasing efforts to help meet the escalating needs. Many of the agencies have called on in the international community to provide more support and engage to find political solutions to the crisis.
The number of those arriving in Bangladesh since August 25, when the latest flare-up of violence in Rakhine state began, has now reached 620,000, taking the total to nearly one million, including those from an earlier wave of arrivals.
Thousands more are reported to be waiting to cross the border.
The Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, with the support of IFRC, ICRC and national societies from around the world, has provided emergency relief to more than 413,000 people, deployed a 60-bed field hospital and mobile clinics that have treated more than 21,000 patients, and distributed more than 130,000 litres of safe drinking water.
But the influx poses ever greater humanitarian challenges such as shelter, toilet facilities and in preventing the spread of disease. Providing emotional support is also an acute need, for those who have in many cases been violently uprooted from their homes.
“My education is what I miss most,” says 17-year-old Abdul as he chats with visitors in the compound of the Red Cross Red Crescent hospital where his younger brother is being treated for two broken legs sustained in an attack by elephants on their camp.
He says six of his uncles were killed on the journey to seek safety in Bangladesh.
Those who have travelled on foot and made perilous boat journeys over the last three months are facing an uncertain future in sprawling camps with rudimentary shelter – often made only of plastic sheeting and bamboo.
“With a million people having arrived from Myanmar and the numbers continuing to rise, we are responding to a massive and complex humanitarian crisis which poses ever greater challenges,” said BDRCS Secretary General BMM Mozharul Huq, ndc. “In order to be able to give the people some measure of dignity and safety in Bangladesh, we need to be able to count on increased levels of international support.”
“Bangladesh has demonstrated a great humanitarian spirit in accommodating the vast numbers of people arriving from Myanmar, said IFRC’s Head of Population Movement Operation, Necephor Mghendi. “On its part, the international community needs to sustain support for meeting the most basic needs in camps but at the same time help to find a lasting solution to this increasingly unsustainable situation,” said Mghendi.
The IFRC has appealed for 33.5 milllion Swiss francs to provide support for the new arrivals, but less than half of the sum needed has been so far pledged.
Among the biggest challenges are providing enough safe drinking water and finding solutions to emptying latrines. With up to seven in every ten shallow wells estimated to be contaminated and inadequate latrines filling up with waste, water and sanitation engineers face huge challenges. The Red Cross Red Crescent is working to drill new deep tube wells and create a treatment site for human waste.
Meanwhile, as the risk of diahorreal diseases continues to rise, Bangladesh Red Crescent Society volunteers are working to put stocks of oral rehydration therapy sachets in place and spread information about how to use them.
But for the hundreds who continue to arrive from Myanmar almost daily, the biggest challenge is that although they can for now find safety, “they don’t know what the future holds for them,” says Mozharul Huq, Secretary General of Bangladesh Red Crescent Society.