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.

'What will happen to us in Bangladesh?'

The hygiene kits include a month’s worth of supplies for a family: ten bars of soap, a kilo of detergent, eight reusable sanitary pads, 50 disposable masks, information, and a bucket with lid and tap for washing hands. Duke Ivn Amin/JAGO NARI

As COVID-19 spreads quietly through communities in Bangladesh, Oxfam partner JAGO NARI shifts into high gear.

What do you do when you live in extreme poverty and are ordered to shelter in place? You get frantic, and for good reason.

“People are in a panic,” says Duke Ivn Amin. “They have few food reserves, and since they are no longer allowed to go out and work, their supplies are quickly running out. The situation is very bad.”

Amin is the emergency response team leader for JAGO NARI, an Oxfam partner organisation in the Barguna district in southern Bangladesh.

“About ten of us are living at the JAGO NARI guest house so we can work out in the communities without putting our families at risk by going home at night,” he says. “It may be months before we see our families,” he adds.

JAGO NARI has been working in Barguna for more than 20 years, and Amin has been there from the start. So, while he’s missing his wife and 16-month-old son, he never seriously considered putting his own comfort and safety ahead of the Barguna communities. “We are at the front lines of this emergency,” he says. “We have to work.”

Fortunately, the government is starting distributions of rice, lentils, oil, and potatoes, which will make sheltering in place more realistic for many families, but without the knowledge and means to avoid transmission, they will remain acutely vulnerable.

“I feel very bad thinking about what’s coming,” says Amin.

“Poor families need everyone’s support now,” says Duke Ivn Amin, shown here with hand sanitizer made and distributed by JAGO NARI. Photo: JAGO NARI

Building on local strengths

JAGO NARI is a Bangladeshi development organisation that emphasises women’s rights and environmental protection. The group worked closely with Oxfam for three years to strengthen its understanding of humanitarian work, and to build its capacity as an organisation. Now, JAGO NARI is able not only to launch rapid emergency responses but also to raise funds for that work from a variety of sources, which is key to its survival.

As a local organisation, its staff has a finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the Barguna communities; when the coronavirus crisis emerged, JAGO NARI noticed that youth organisations were engaging immediately in the response.

“Youth are always at the front lines in an emergency. They move fast and contribute so much,” says Amin. “And in this emergency, they are much less vulnerable than elders.”

But the groups lacked experience, coordination, and proper safety protocols, so JAGO NARI invited them to help form a new organisation: the Coastal Youth Network. Now they work together to get the word out, and they keep safety—their own and that of the communities—front and centre.

JAGO NARI and the Coastal Youth Network have been disseminating public health information through leaflets and radio shows, and cars that blast the messages out of loudspeakers. They’ve been going door to door distributing face masks and leaflets; within the week—with support from Oxfam—they will also be distributing hygiene kits (see photo), and Oxfam will help them step up their public health awareness campaign in hopes of reaching 35,000 people.

Everyone needs to come forward

There is frustration in Amin’s voice as he talks about the catastrophe bearing down on his communities.

“The international community was late in waking up to this crisis,” he says, and his own country has also stumbled. “There are many workers who migrate from Bangladesh to other countries for jobs; they return by the thousands but are not quarantined when they arrive. Now, they are spread out all over the country.”

The number of confirmed cases is growing at a worrying rate – our future reality could be grim. Doubly so because no one outside Dhaka is likely to have access to proper medical care.

As the wealthy countries of the world stagger under the weight of the coronavirus emergency, he asks, “What will happen to us in Bangladesh?”

“This is the biggest crisis our country has faced since the war of liberation,” he says, with a death toll that could dwarf the famine of 1974 or the powerful cyclones that hammer this country each year.

But thinking back to the war gives him a measure of hope. “Back then,” he says, “everyone came forward to do what they could. That’s what we need now, and I think it will happen.”

Oxfam is mobilising to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to save lives in vulnerable communities around the world. Working closely with our local partner organisations, we are delivering clean water, sanitation, and public health promotion programs; supporting food security; and getting cash to many of those in greatest need. In Bangladesh, Oxfam has helped many local organisations strengthen their capacity as humanitarian responders. We will work hand in hand with them in the COVID-19 response.

You can help Oxfam reduce the risk of COVID-19 to those most vulnerable.

Bangladesh: Helping each other is in our blood

Scene from Sunamganj District in 2017, when a flash flood submerged the region. Zobaidur Rahman/Oxfam

Author: Elizabeth Stevens

NEWS UPDATE: A cyclone bore down on Bangladesh just the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the crowded refugee camps for the Rohingya – these coinciding crises create new challenges and even greater need. Read more.

When faced with the threat of flash floods, a cyclone, and COVID-19, an Oxfam partner in Bangladesh reached tens of thousands with life-saving messages, and more.

In Bangladesh, all eyes are on the water.

As the monsoon unfolds each year in the Meghalaya Hills of India to the north, the runoff rushes south, turning peaceful rivers into raging torrents that often overtop their banks and flood the countryside. In a bad year, flash floods destroy crops and sweep away houses, forcing the poorest families to start over again—from nothing.

Annual floods aren’t disasters in and of themselves. They are natural phenomena. It’s only when poverty and inequality become part of the equation that flooding becomes a crisis: the poorest people live in harm’s way because they can’t afford to live anywhere else.

Many of Bangladesh’s poorest live in the low-lying northeastern district of Sunamganj, where vast wetlands, or haors, dominate the landscape in the rainy season. Here, the fortunes of communities rise and fall with those of the rice crop—which in turn depends on the right amount of water arriving at the right moment of the year. Most people work as tenant farmers or day labourers; one way or another, all are dependent on the harvest to feed their families.

“Every day they sell their labour, and with the money they earn they buy that day’s essentials,” says Mohammed Seraj Islam. “Even before the floods, they are penniless.” Islam is the director of Efforts for Rural Advancement (ERA), an Oxfam partner in Bangladesh.

When flash floods strike, he says, the water comes suddenly. Families make what is often a dangerous journey from their flooded homes to informal shelters on higher ground, but the conditions there are often grim. Drinking water is usually contaminated, and crossing the turbulent water to reach health care providers is not an option. Women and girls may not have safe access to latrines, and may lack privacy for activities like breastfeeding. And there may be nothing to eat but rice. “You just eat to survive,” says Islam. “To stave off your hunger.”

When the water recedes, families that have lost their crops and incomes must sell their livestock and whatever else they can and migrate to find temporary work. But, as Islam says, when they reach Dhaka, employers often sense their desperation and offer terrible compensation.

Preparedness and inspiration

Knowing when and if floods are expected can reduce some of the risks these communities face. Each year, a multi-country network monitors the river flows, issuing warnings if floods are likely. In Sunamganj, ERA makes sure those warnings go the last mile. By late April of 2020, the Bangladeshi government knew flash floods were imminent and was urging an early harvest; ERA and its team of 500 volunteers—linking up with local religious leaders and community organisations—saw to it that the message reached the district’s far-flung communities.

At the time of this writing, ERA was poised to respond to the floods by deploying their contingency stocks, which include soap and detergent, sanitary napkins, antiseptic, oral rehydration salts, megaphones, and plastic buckets, as well as solar lights to make shelter life safer for women and girls. With enough funding, ERA also plans to distribute cash to many of the most vulnerable families—with a particular focus on women—so they can purchase food and other essentials.

ERA is one of 56 Bangladeshi organisations that Oxfam has supported through a three-year program aimed at strengthening their ability to carry out and lead humanitarian work. ERA staff learned how to transfer cash to hard-hit families, and how to launch emergency water and sanitation projects, for example, and now the organisation forms a crucial link between struggling communities of Sunamganj and disaster aid. “Now we are able to respond efficiently,” says Islam.

Disaster upon disaster

When the floods arrive, people take to the high ground and gather in shelters, but during this pandemic, a crowded shelter could be a very dangerous place to be. The cyclone season is also upon the region – with Cyclone Amphan making landfall just last week - but the cyclone shelters that dot the landscape of Bangladesh now look more than anything like future breeding grounds for the virus.

And the record-breaking outbreak of dengue that left hospitals overflowing in 2019? Many fear a recurrence, but it’s hard to imagine how any country could handle COVID-19 on top of such a health crisis. The scary truth is that a series of disasters is almost certain to strike Bangladesh in the coming weeks and months, and people seeking respite from them may put themselves squarely in the path of COVID-19.

ERA is doubling down to protect lives. It has added new elements to its planned flood response, such as delivering food to households where family members may be sick with COVID-19. And volunteers are disseminating messages about how to stay safe in the face of the disease—hoping soon to reach 55,000 people in the district.

But in Sunamganj and around the country, nothing short of a massive national preparedness and response effort—with international support—will keep the virus in check while enabling poor families to survive the shutdown. With income from jobs, day labour, and remittances from abroad slowed to a trickle, poor communities must now depend on the relief efforts of a government that is itself reeling from the effects of the pandemic.

“People confined to their homes are unable to meet their basic needs,” says Oxfam country director Dipankar Datta. “And now they are facing a host of additional crises.” In the short term, they urgently need access to soap and water, and cash to buy essentials like food and medicines—and the organisations that deliver aid need support to do their work. But catastrophes like this don’t just happen naturally, says Datta, and meeting the immediate needs is only part of the picture. “Inequality means some people are born into safety while others must fight for their lives from day one,” he says. “The real disaster here is poverty.”

For poor communities in Bangladesh, the near future looks bleak, but Islam, who was born and raised in Sunamganj, takes the long view.

“The people of this district have been fighting disasters for thousands of years, and we are still here. Forty or fifty years ago in big emergencies, when we had even less government support and worse communications, villagers organised themselves to deliver food to people in remote areas,” he says. “We will be able to face these challenges. We have strength and unity, and we know we are fighters. Helping each other is in our blood.”

In Bangladesh, Oxfam and 23 partner organisations have stepped up work on helping the poorest communities gain access to clean water and sanitation facilities, and the materials and information they need to protect their health through safe hygiene. The crowded camps for Rohingya refugees are particularly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19; Oxfam and partners are providing water, sanitation, and hygiene support to 173,000 camp residents and 9,000 people in the surrounding communities. With enough funding, we also aim to deliver cash to 100,000 families, enabling them to buy food and other essentials from local businesses that are also struggling in this crisis.

Your donation today can help slow the spread of COVID-19. Our teams are scaling up this work globally with the support of people like you.

This disease knows no borders and does not discriminate. For the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, the worst is yet to come as the coronavirus begins to establish itself and spread quickly through communities powerless to stop it, without access to water, sanitation or healthcare.

Together, we can save lives.

Trust comes first: strengthening COVID-19 prevention mechanism in Rohingya camps

Since Oxfam’s humanitarian response in Bangladesh and Mayanmar began in September 2017, we dedicated our efforts to building relationships with the Rohingya refugee community and traditional community leaders like Majhis and Imams. Majhis and Imams hold an important role the camps as people listen to and respect their advice, and so they lead on developing community action plans for proper hygiene management to help reduce public health risks. Community-based Volunteers have also played an important role in ensuring accurate, timely information is passed onto people, and they have played a central role in strengthening Oxfam’s relationship with the wider community.

Damage following heavy rains at Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar. Photo: Mutasim Billah/Oxfam

COVID-19 now poses serious challenges for all people in the camps – both refugees and humanitarian responders. Aid agencies are only allowed to run essential services and as a part of the government’s directive, we are continuing our water, hygiene, and sanitation services – ensuring people have access to clean water and soap. It is a challenging task as only a handful of our team can access the camps because of strict regulatory controls that are in place to prevent the spread of the virus. Over the last three weeks, we have been providing essential emergency services successfully, and it has been possible because of Oxfam’s trusted relationship with the community.

It is amazing to see the leadership of the community in this challenging time. Community Based Volunteers and the community in general are playing an active role in keeping WASH services functioning, while our front-line warriors have taken up the role of facilitators and communicators.

 

Iffat, Oxfam aid worker, training Rohingya refugees about good health and hygiene in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith/ Oxfam

For example, Majhis are now monitoring the functionality of wash facilities and solid waste management at the block level. Imams are encouraging the community to practice hand washing with soap, maintain cleanliness of sanitation facilities and practice physical distancing in public places. Religious leaders are also encouraging people to practise their religious activities at home, to help slow the spread and keep people safe.

As Oxfam, we have a duty to ensure the correct information about COVID-19 is disseminated. Whenever people see Oxfam warriors in the camp, they approach to them for advice and information on a number of issues. Experiencing Oxfam as a trusted source of information demonstrates the importance of maintaining functional and empowering relationship with the communities, we work with everyday - because at the end of the day, we really are all in this together.

Dipankar Datta, Oxfam Country Director in Bangladesh

This disease knows no borders and does not discriminate. For the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, the worst is yet to come as the coronavirus begins to establish itself and spread quickly through communities powerless to stop it, without access to water, sanitation or healthcare.
Together, we can save lives.

 

As COVID-19 cases grow, displaced Rohingya face new threats that reflect continued persecution

COVID-19 has become an inescapable reality. At the time of writing, 28 April, there were 146-recorded cases Myanmar and 5,913 cases in Bangladesh. While for Oxfam, such announcements have been anticipated given the global nature of the pandemic, the spread of the virus in the both countries has nonetheless brought with it further fears and uncertainty for Rohingya refugees living on obth sides of the border.

Habiba* washes her son at an Oxfam water pump. Habiba lives in Kutupalong Camp with her three children. Oxfam installed four hand pumps near to her home. Credit: Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam (*name changed)

The virus is set to have a potentially devastating impact on the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled the violence and conflict.  

Oxfam has ongoing humanitarian programming in many internal displacement camps, including the confined camps in Rakhine where an estimated 120,000 displaced Rohingya people have remained for the past eight years.

We see first-hand the extremely limited access to health care and other essential services internally displaced people (IDPs) in Myanmar have, as well as the underlying health challenges they face, from chronic malnutrition to cramped living conditions in inadequate shelters. All of these factors could significantly worsen if there is a COVID-19 outbreak. In the confined camps in Rakhine, basic preventative measures, such social distancing and self-isolation, remain impossible - with ten or more family members often living in a single shelter that measures about nine by five foot.

Please send doctors

Even hand washing is out of reach for some in the camps in light of the extremely limited water supply. Based on our ongoing discussions with the Rohingya community, before the threat of COVID-19 became apparent, it was already clear that they faced major challenges in terms of basic health care:

“Living here in the camps, everything gives us diseases. The camp infects everyone with diseases, and I have no money to see a doctor. We must sit and bear it and suffer without any medication. We have no means to go see the doctor even when we are sick.” — Rohingya woman, 28 years old, displaced and living in the confined camps in central Rakhine, Myanmar.

“Please send good doctors to the camps with enough medicine because here in the camps people here are losing their lives day by day. The camps make it very easy for people to contract diseases, but difficult to get medical treatment. The doctors do not see the patients and do not help us. And the patients are not receiving the right medicine for the illnesses they suffer.” — Rohingya woman, 35 years old, displaced and living in confined camps in central Rakhine, Myanmar

These women’s words reflect the extremely limited medical care in the camp, with doctors available only sporadically, and severe restrictions on the ability of people to leave the camps and access more specialised services at the nearby hospital. If someone in the camps falls ill and needs more specialised care, they must seek and receive official permission, which often takes several days, and they must pay a security escort to travel with them to the hospital located only a few kilometres away in town.

The complicated, time consuming and expensive process means that many are simply unable to access vital health care, even in an emergency. In this context, if people do become sick with the COVID-19 virus, it is likely they will have little to no ability to isolate themselves or seek professional care.

The possibility of an outbreak of the virus in these camps became that much clearer this week as a cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Cox’s Bazar, the town located across the border in Bangladesh, which is home to the sprawling refugee camps where one million Rohingya refugees currently live after fleeing horrific violence in Myanmar in 2017.

Shim*, 12, holds an Oxfam food parcel she received from a distribution at Kutupalong Camp, Bangladesh. Credit: Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam

Oxfam is urgently scaling up humanitarian work

This is why we are urgently scaling up our humanitarian efforts in the Rohingya camps in Myanmar and Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

With our partner Solidarités International, we are increasing public health promotion activities, including the urgent construction of an additional 1000 hand-washing stations, the distribution of 17,000 pieces of soap every month along with other basic hygiene items and sharing essential information about the prevention of the virus in Rohingya language through community networks and channels.

Similarly, in Cox’s Bazar, we have intensified and escalated hygiene promotion efforts, including prevention messaging with communities, while enhancing water and sanitation facilities. In a welcome move, the Office of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner in Cox’s Bazar designated water and sanitation services as essential ones, enabling us to continue to deliver life-saving measures during the COVID-19 crisis. Continued humanitarian access for life saving activities in the camps on both sides of the border remains critical.

While Oxfam, along with governments and other humanitarian organisations are mobilising quickly to prevent the spread of the virus, another concern that could significantly worsen the spread of the COVID-19 virus is the shutdown of Internet services. Unlike most places in 2020, where we can check our mobile phones for immediate information about the virus, how to prevent it and what to do if you feel ill, Rohingya refugees have experienced the shutdown of internet services on both sides of the border.

Health crisis, human rights crisis

None of these issues — from the lack of protection, to the lack of essential services, to the lack of information — are new. Rohingya communities have been faced with an entirely precarious existence for years, struggling to access the very basics to survive. However, the threat of COVID-19 is putting the human rights crisis faced by Rohingya living in camps on both sides of the border into sharper focus. It starkly shows how equal rights are central to ensuring each human life is valued and protected, whether it’s amid a pandemic or not.

It’s by focusing on the rights of Rohingya and other displaced communities that we can increase the effectiveness of COVID-19 prevention efforts in the immediate and reduce vulnerabilities over the long term.

Alison Kent, Director of Advocacy & Communications, Oxfam in Myanmar.

This disease knows no borders and does not discriminate. For the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, the worst is yet to come as the coronavirus begins to establish itself and spread quickly through communities powerless to stop it, without access to water, sanitation or healthcare.
Together, we can save lives.

COVID-19: Why we need your support now more than ever

We just launched an appeal to support Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar survive monsoon season – the day after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in that region of Bangladesh.

As appeal letters dropped through the letterboxes of our loyal supporters, some 900,000 people living in the biggest refugee settlement in the world began to panic about how they could practice social distancing and life-saving hygiene practises in a makeshift home without adequate sanitation and health infrastructure.

This is the news we dreaded – and it’s why we made the decision to still launch our appeal at a time of unprecedented challenge at home and abroad as COVID-19 threatens us all. For people living in cramped, flimsy shelters in over-crowded camps, the impact of an outbreak doesn’t bear thinking about.

It’s our job to let our supporters know how they can help the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, those facing poverty and disaster beyond our imagination.

We usually tell these stories and how you can be part of them face-to-face, through our fundraising activities and our network of shops in communities across the country. To protect us all, we can’t do that right now and we’re are urgently appealing for your help. 

We need your generous support now more than ever.

In addition to helping Rohingya refugees prepare for monsoon season, we’ll be helping them and communities all over the world to stay safe and healthy as COVID-19 threatens the poorest and most vulnerable.

Please donate what you can today:

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