Rohingya Refugee Crisis

  • More than 600,000 Rohingya people have arrived in Bangladesh, fleeing unimaginable atrocities. Exhausted and terrified, many believed they wouldn’t survive the journey. Oxfam is there, providing food and life-saving clean water to those fleeing Myanmar and the host communities that have opened their doors to them. But we desperately need your support as more and more traumatised men, women and children arrive in Bangladesh every day.

The Rohingya crisis: a matter of life and death

On 25 August 2017, the Myanmar military began a brutal crackdown on Rohingya communities causing more than 700,000 people to flee to Bangladesh. Since then, refugees having been living in camps and Bangladesh communities with little hope for the future. Refugee and Bangladeshi communities are intertwined, and harmony between them is essential for the security and peace of mind. Elizabeth Hallinan, Oxfam’s Advocacy Manager in the Rohingya crisis explains why we must move beyond the emergency response in Bangladesh and give people better infrastructure and the chance to earn and learn.

For over a year, I have been working in the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar where I have seen the refugee and host communities settle into a life together. One member of the Bangladeshi host community with a keen sense of history is Abu Jahed from the Teknaf area. His life story demonstrates the intertwined histories of Rakhine and Cox’s Bazar. 

Abu Jahed at his home in the Teknaf area. Photo credit: Mutasim Billah/Oxfam

Situated between the Bay of Bengal to the west and the Naf River to the east, Teknaf is a peninusula with paddy fields and river embankments from where you can see beyond to the high green hills of Myanmar. Two years ago, Bangladeshi villagers watched smoke rising from these hills and prepared themselves for the new arrivals. 

Safety in Bangladesh

Abu Jahed remembers those early days: “We could see the smoke of their burning houses from here.  They came, crossing the river – can you see how big that river is to cross? Many of them died doing so. Those that made it here had nothing – no food, no water, and barely dressed. I went to the main road to invite them to my house.”

This was not the first time refugees from Myanmar braved the Naf River to arrive here. The Government of Bangladesh currently hosts more than 912,000 refugees (https://data2.unhcr.org/en/documents/download/70585): about 710,000 of whom came in 2017, but about 200,000 have been here longer, since conflict in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Refugees have come to Bangladesh, searching for safety, about a dozen times since Myanmar became a country in 1948.

The fight over natural resources

Like many places in Teknaf, refugees landing in Abu Jahed’s village, arrived quite literally in the host community’s backyards. They put up shelters in paddy fields, chopped down precious jungle forest, crowded the water pumps.

“We, the local people, are dependent on three things – the forest, the land and the river.  These people have chopped down our forest, they have taken our land, and now even the army does not let us cross the river for fishing and trade. You can see why people say that the Rohingya took everything from us. In no time at all, we were quarrelling.”

Poverty and limited social services

Cox’s Bazar is the second poorest district in Bangladesh; the host community was struggling even before the latest arrivals.  There are about 335,000 Bangladeshis, and nearly three times that many refugees. The strain is undeniable. 

I asked Abu Jahed why he decided to take people in?

“Let me tell you something about me,” he says.  “In 1971, during the Bangladesh Liberation War, I myself was a refugee in Myanmar. I was 10 years old when we woke in the night to find our houses burning, and we made the awful journey to Myanmar to save our lives. People there took us in. We had nothing, but we were safe there.

“To this day, we are very thankful to them and now feel a responsibility to pay them back for this kindness.”

Repaying the kindness

Many host community members have expressed this kind of sentiment to me.  Some were themselves displaced in the 1970s, others felt a bond with fellow Muslims or said that helping the refugees just seemed like the right thing to do. While many local community members expressed empathy for the refugees, they also see that the sheer scale of the new population is a larger issue.

Abu Jahed put it like this: “Let me tell you a story… Some boys were playing by a river where some frogs were floating. The boys started throwing stones at the frogs, when a passing village elder asked the boys what they were doing. ‘We are playing,’ they answered. Listening to the boys’ reply, the frogs called out, ‘Throwing stones at us might be a game for you, but our lives are at risk.’ The Rohingya people and the people of Cox’s Bazar are like the frogs of the story. The world is playing with us. This situation is a game for them, but for the hosts and the refugees living in these conditions it is a matter of life and death.”

Refugees need legal status

Refugees in Bangladesh do not have legal status, so they cannot work, move freely around the country or access a formal education.

This presents a huge problem, explained Abu Jahed: “It is undeniable that education is a must for everyone. If the government can find a way to support their education without causing more problems for us, everyone could support that. Otherwise, what can we expect of the next generation growing up in conditions where their rights are violated, and they have no proper education? We can’t expect anything good.”

International support is urgent

The Government of Bangladesh is under a huge amount of pressure to provide for the refugee population, while also managing the legitimate frustrations of the local communities hosting them.

It is a delicate line to walk, and Bangladesh needs support from countries around the world to continue to develop Cox’s Bazar.  For 2019, the response has only 36% of the funding it needs to help these communities [https://fts.unocha.org/appeals/719/summary].

Myanmar also needs to take steps to address the root causes of the conflict. It must implement the Rakhine Advisory Commission Recommendations, including equal access to  to citizenship for Rohingya while putting an end to movement restrictions and other discriminatory policies [http://www.rakhinecommission.org/the-final-report/].

Listen to the people

Abu Jahed told me, “I would urge our government and other countries to put pressure on Myanmar, so that they stop this and listen to what Rohingya people want to say. They are asking for their citizenship, nothing else. If Myanmar does not listen then the world should come forward to help Bangladesh.

“Remember the story I shared? It might be a game for them, but we are risking our lives.”

Oxfam has been working with Rohingya refugees since the beginning of the crisis. We have supported more than 266,000 people, providing them with clean drinking water, latrines, sanitation and hygiene, fresh food vouchers, lighting, and protection programs. Oxfam also works with host communities providing protection and livelihood opportunities. We advocate at the highest levels for the rights of refugees in Bangladesh and communities impacted by conflict in Myanmar. Oxfam will continue to support refugees, working with national and international partners, to ensure that everyone’s rights are respected and that they have access to basic services while working towards durable solutions to this crisis.  

 

Biggest-ever waste treatment plant in a refugee camp is ‘step forward’ for safer human waste disposal in emergencies

Author: Kelsey-Rae Taylor, Oxfam New Zealand
 
 
Oxfam has opened the largest human waste treatment plant ever built in a refugee camp, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. The industrial-scale plant, funded by the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, can process the waste of 150,000 people – a population bigger than Tauranga. 
Being able to treat large volumes of faecal waste on site, rather than having to transport it elsewhere, is a big step forward in how to safely and sustainably dispose of such waste in emergencies. 
 
Last year more than 200,000 cases of acute diarrhoea were reported in the Rohingya camps, as well as respiratory infections and skin diseases like scabies – all related to poor sanitation and hygiene. 
 
Over seven months, Oxfam engineers and Rohingya refugees have built the massive system which has been specially designed for the steep, hilly terrain and to have the cheapest possible operation and maintenance costs. 
 
A suitable site was provided by the Government of Bangladesh and the project was delivered in collaboration with the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner's Office in Cox’s Bazar.   
  
Oxfam water and sanitation engineer Salahuddin Ahmmed said: “Safe sanitation is vital to prevent outbreaks of disease but disposing safely of human waste in the world’s biggest refugee camp is a major challenge. This ecological plant will help to keep refugees healthy by treating 40 cubic meters of waste a day – a huge amount. The initial investment is well worth it because the plant is cheap and easy to run and could last for 20 years – benefitting local communities when this emergency is over. We expect to replicate this model in future crises.” 
 
In emergencies, the most common method of waste disposal is to use tankers to suck out the sewage from latrines and take it away. But around 85 per cent of the world’s refugees are in developing countries, often lacking adequate sewage systems to deal with all this extra waste. Treating it on site reduces the risk that it will which end up being dumped in a field or polluting a local stream. 
 
The new, ecological plant, made up of treatment ponds and wetlands, is safe for people and the environment. It has multiple treatment stages to prevent contamination of local water sources and a high-density polyethylene liner and covered anaerobic unit to stop unpleasant odours escaping. 
 
The plant also produces biogas – Oxfam is exploring how to get this to refugee families to cook with. 
 
Aki is an 18-year-old Rohingya refugee who works as a community volunteer for Oxfam, talking to fellow refugees about good hygiene, handwashing, and keeping toilets clean. After a tour of the new plant, she said she had a better understanding of how her work is part of Oxfam’s wider efforts to stop outbreaks of disease. 
 
Aki said: “I didn’t know what happened to all the waste from the latrines. I’m happy that Oxfam has built this plant as it will help prevent the spread of diseases. Last year lots of people were sick with serious diarrhea. But we are seeing improvements. We can tell our community that this plant is doing something that will help for the future, and maybe also produce cooking gas. It’s great.” 
 
Close to a million Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh still need food, water, shelter and other essential aid to survive. Oxfam is calling for more aid and resources to improve conditions beyond the basics and keep people safe. 
 
Oxfam is providing vital aid including clean water and food vouchers to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, and has so far reached at least 266,000 people. 
 
Notes to editors: 
 
The plant was designed by a German organisation called BORDA - specialists in sanitation systems in developing countries. 
 
In 2018 there were more than 200,000 cases of acute diarrhoea reported in the Cox’s Bazar camps, according to the WHO and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. 
 
The UN calculates that 85 per cent of refugees are in developing countries. 
 
-ends-
 

$72 million needed to protect Rohingya refugee women missing out on vital aid

Rohingya women living in Bangladesh are developing health problems, missing out on aid and are at greater risk of abuse due to unsafe and unsuitable facilities in many parts of the refugee camps, Oxfam warned today. 
 
The international agency called for 15 per cent of new funding to be set aside for humanitarian programs designed to better support women and girls – including $72 million of the nearly half a billion dollars recently committed by the World Bank. Currently, there is no standalone budget for meeting women’s specific needs in the overall emergency response.
 
The Bangladesh government and agencies have provided emergency aid to more than 700,000 Rohingya people who have arrived over the past year, but the speed at which the world’s biggest refugee camp sprang up has made it difficult for support to keep pace.
 
More than a third of women surveyed by Oxfam and partner agencies said they did not feel safe or comfortable going to collect water or using toilets and shower cubicles – many of which lack a roof and a lockable door. Half the women and three quarters of adolescent girls said they didn’t have what they needed to manage their periods, including a female-only place to wash sanitary cloths without embarrassment.
 
As a result, women are going hungry and thirsty to avoid needing the toilet as frequently, suffering abdominal pain and infections by not relieving themselves or using unhygienic sanitary cloths, and resorting to defecation by their tents, which increases the risk of a major outbreak of disease – especially in the monsoon. 
 
Poor facilities are also increasing the risk of sexual abuse and harassment. Hundreds of incidents of gender-based violence are reported each week.
 
Oxfam’s Advocacy Manager in Cox’s Bazar, Dorothy Sang, said: “The breakneck speed at which the Rohingya refugee crisis unfolded meant that many emergency facilities were installed in a rush and women’s specific needs weren’t considered. Women and girls are now paying the price in terms of their wellbeing and safety. 
 
“This needs to be rectified urgently with substantial sums set aside to support and protect Rohingya women, such as lighting to improve safety, toilets and wash rooms that provide privacy, and extra assistance for the most vulnerable.”
Single mothers whose husbands are missing or dead head up one in six families in the Rohingya camps. They face particular problems, having to take on public roles that challenge cultural and religious assumptions about women’s place in society. Oxfam is calling for more to be done to support these vulnerable women, such as help collecting aid packages and more community dialogue about men and women’s traditional roles.
 
Oxfam is working with local organisations and refugees to tailor its humanitarian response to more effectively support women and girls. This includes installing solar-powered lights along pathways, distributing portable solar lamps, running women’s groups to discuss issues like safety and early marriage, community work to tackle violence against women, and working with refugees to design new toilet facilities with features like lockable doors, shelves to keep clothes out of the mud, and screens to afford privacy.  
Sang added: “The Bangladesh Government should be commended for allowing Rohingya people to seek refuge in Cox’s Bazar. We join them and others in calling on Myanmar to address the discriminatory policies that are the root cause of this crisis.”
Close to a million Rohingya people have sought refuge in Bangladesh following a military campaign against them in Myanmar that has been described by UN officials as ‘ethnic cleansing’. 
 
 
ENDS           
 
CONTACT: 
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Alice Dawson-Lyons, Oxfam Ireland, on +353 (0) 83 198 1869 or at alice.dawsonlyons@oxfamireland.org  
 
NORTHERN IRELAND: Phillip Graham on 0044 (0) 7841 102535 / phillip.graham@oxfamireland.org
 
Rohingya refugee Ayesha with her daughter in her shelter in the camps in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo Credit: Maruf Hasan/Oxfam
 
Rohingya refugee Asia Bibi* with solar panels provided by Oxfam, in her shelter in the camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.  Photo Credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith/ Oxfam

Five things I’ve learned being a humanitarian aid worker

This World Humanitarian Day, Iffat Tahmid Fatema, Oxfam public health worker, shares what it's like helping people in our Rohingya refugee response in Bangladesh.

I started working for Oxfam last year at the height of the emergency when Rohingya refugees were arriving in huge numbers every day. At that time, I was toiling in a lab at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong pursuing my Master's degree in Bio-Technology, but I knew I wanted to work with real people, face-to-face. What's happened to the Rohingya people really upset me. I had never seen people living with so little. It really hurt me.

Now I teach Rohingya refugees living in the camp in Cox's Bazar about health and hygiene, to help them keep well and to prevent a major outbreak of disease. We discuss the importance of cleanliness and personal hygiene like washing your hands with soap after going to the toilet and before eating. We work with volunteers from the Rohingya community, training them so they can teach other refugees and spread good hygiene messages far and wide. The Oxfam team has reached more than 266,000 people in the camps so far.

1. Know what motivates you

In this job you need drive, good communication skills, and initiative.

When it's extremely hot, or raining heavily, or you’re tired, you might not feel like spending another long day in the camps. But then you think of the refugees and how you are working for them - that motivates you to keep going.

 

2. You have to build trust

Humanitarian work is also about building trust. You have to be sensitive to local culture and traditions.

You also have to be able to talk to different groups of people in different ways, from children to older people and Imams, the religious leaders. And you need to be a good observer so you can try to understand how people think.

 

3. Speak their language

Sometimes the refugees can be uncomfortable with someone who is not like them, so it helps that I can speak a similar language. But the language is also the biggest challenge as the regional language, Chittagonian, is only about 70 per cent the same as Rohingya.

Oxfam has worked with Translators Against Borders to develop a new translation app in English, Bangla and Rohingya, including specific vocabulary about health and hygiene, so this will be a big help.

 

4. Be prepared to face challenges

Working in the monsoons has been extremely hard and can be dangerous. When there is a heavy downpour of rain, conditions in the camps become very bad, very quickly. You can sink into the mud and lose your boots. When you climb the dirt steps there is the possibility the whole thing will collapse.

5. Patience is a virtue

The most important thing I have learnt is to be polite and be patient - even though I might be repeating the same thing hundreds of times, such as how to wash your hands. I am very impatient by nature, but working in the camps I have learned how to control my frustrations.

The most satisfying part of my job has been hearing from refugees what a difference Oxfam’s support has made to them.

We run regular listening groups where the community can give us constructive feedback. Recently a grandfather told me: "We are happy that you come and you listen to us. Thank you for the work you do."

That made me feel very happy.

This entry posted on 18 August 2018 by Iffat Tahmid Fatema, humanitarian public health worker for Oxfam’s Rohingya refugee response in Bangladesh, as part of our World Humanitarian Day program.

All photos: Iffat Tahimd Fatema, humanitarian public health promoter for Oxfam, in the Rohingya refugee camps, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Oxfam

Heavy monsoon rains hit Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

Thursday 26th July

The situation:

Urgent action is needed to help Rohingya refugees who are today being hit by monsoon rains in camps in Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh. The heavy rains and widespread flooding have already caused over 130 landslides, damaged 3,300 shelters and affected 28,000 people, Oxfam has said.

Outside of the camp in Cox’s Bazar, reports claim that up to 5 children have been killed in a landslide elsewhere in the town. Fallen trees and landslides are blocking some of the roads. There are predictions of up to 100mm of rainfall per day for next few days.

A survey of Rohingya refugees carried out by Oxfam before the monsoon season found that more than half were almost completely unprepared for the floods, landslides and disease that accompany the monsoon weather, with women most at risk.

The UN warns that 200,000 refugees are at risk from flooding and landslides, with around 24,000 of those considered at high risk. So far nearly 25,000 refugees have been relocated to newly flattened ground that should be safer.

What is Oxfam doing?

  • Oxfam is working with the government of Bangladesh and the UN to relocate refugees to safer areas and to make the remaining areas as weather-proof as possible.
  • To help keep disease at bay, Oxfam is supporting the UN to build water and sanitation infrastructure in two of the new, safer zones in the Ukhia mega-camp.
  • Oxfam teams are also cleaning and replacing full latrines, drilling deep wells that won't be polluted by dirty ground water, and working with refugee communities to promote good hygiene.
  • Oxfam teams are assessing the impact of the current heavy rains. They will provide further information on the numbers of households affected, landslide locations, and these teams will also be prepared to distribute some humanitarian items if necessary.
  • As part of Oxfam’s emergency plan, trained and identified Emergency Response Team members in Dhaka are available to rapidly deploy.

·         Since the start of the crisis, Oxfam has helped more than 180,000 Rohingya refugees with clean drinking water, emergency toilets and food rations.

Spokespeople and media materials

Oxfam has spokespeople available in Ireland and on the ground to discuss the humanitarian situation.

Oxfam media materials will also be available, including to mark the forthcoming first anniversary (August 25th) of the violence in Myanmar which sparked the current Rohingya refugee crisis.

CONTACT:

For interviews or more information, contact:

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Alice Dawson-Lyons, Oxfam Ireland, on +353 (0) 83 198 1869 / alice.dawsonlyons@oxfamireland.org

NORTHERN IRELAND: Phillip Graham on 0044 (0) 7841 102535 / phillip.graham@oxfamireland.org

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