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.

Bangladesh: Transformative tailoring for Rohingya women

Elderly lady smiles
Credit: Caroline Leal/Oxfam

Gender dynamics in the largest refugee settlement in the world

“You have come to this country as a guest,” Shompa, 60 years old, says to Caroline Leal from Oxfam as she sits in Shompa’s shelter in Camp 22 in the Unchiprang camp in the Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh. “Well, so have I. And, just like you, I want to return home.”

It’s been two years since over 700,000 Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar, fled their home to Bangladesh. Their exodus to seek safety began on August 25, 2017 after violence broke out in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

Bangladesh is now the host of the largest refugee settlement in the world. More than half the Rohingya refugees are women, and 60 percent of the female population are under 18 years of age.

Although Shompa is safe from the violence she was subjected to in Myanmar, she and thousands of Rohingya women still continue to face huge challenges in the refugee settlements. Gender dynamics, trauma endured in Myanmar and pre-existing cultural and social norms are proving to be major factors for women to overcome.

“When fleeing our home, it was too dangerous to grab any belongings. We had no choice but to escape to Bangladesh with only the clothes on our back,” Shompa said.

This is particularly problematic for Rohingya women in the camp as the community’s traditional practice of purdah, which is the screening of women from men or strangers, is still observed. The lack of proper clothing has greatly affected the ability of Rohingya refugee women to move freely around the camps.

Back in Rakhine, women did not need a burqa to access latrines and water points, as these were close to their homes and they lived with their relatives. But the reality in Camp 22 is different.

“When I needed to go outdoors, I had to see if there were any men around,” Shompa said. “Because of this [lack of proper clothing], I often couldn’t go outside.”

Working directly with Rohingya women and members of the host community in the district of Cox’s Bazar, Oxfam decided to help address this challenge. Through Oxfam’s protection and sustainable livelihoods program, a project was designed which involves the distribution of nine different fabrics along with tailoring vouchers. These vouchers can be used at local shops in the host community, and mean that Rohingya women are able to have garments that are culturally appropriate.

A common thread

Refugee man tailors clothes
Credit: Caroline Leal/Oxfam

A short drive away from Camp 22, the small town of Chakmaara is filled with shops and tuk-tuks. On the second floor of the plaza, Noor Mohammed, a local tailor, fills out orders inside his brightly painted shop. Fabric, buttons and thread fill every corner.

“On my own, I couldn’t complete all of the orders! I had six tailors working but had to hire five more,” Mohammed said.

Mohammed is one of the local vendors participating in Oxfam’s tailoring voucher program.

The impact of the Rohingya refugee camps on a host community that is already one of the poorest in Bangladesh is undeniable.

“Since the construction of the camps, the cost of daily life and goods has risen significantly,” says Mohammed. “One kilogram of potatoes usually cost six Taka (approximately $0.10 CAD). Today, it’s around 22 Taka.”

Cost increases are also affecting businesses. Before the influx, business owners like Mohammed averaged a monthly profit of 5000 Taka (approximately $77 CAD). That average has been cut by more than half, hovering around 2000 Taka.

Since the launch of the tailoring voucher program, Mohammed’s business has prospered. In the past three months alone, he and his team have made 1,400 garments.

“Thanks to this program, my business has greatly flourished,” he says.

Hand shows clothing
Credit: Caroline Leal/Oxfam

A humanitarian response working for women

A couple of shelters down from Shompa’s, Ayesha, 18, lives after fleeing the violence of Myanmar with her husband, their young son, and her parents. Her husband lives 50 kilometres away in the Balukhali camp, working at the mosque.

Life is difficult for a single woman in the camp. Ayesha collects firewood and heavy buckets of water from a nearby water point twice daily. She has participated in Oxfam’s tailoring voucher program

“For me, it’s a matter of safety,” she says. “I feel heard.”

Ayesha isn’t alone in her sentiment. According to a recent survey done on the Rohingya response by Oxfam, 95 percent of women feel safer and more comfortable going outside their home thanks to the tailoring voucher program.

Designing programs for women, with women, is putting power back in their hands in times of crisis. Listening to what Shompa and Ayesha want is the way to ensure humanitarian responses work for women.

Oxfam bag with tailored clothes
Credit: Caroline Leal/Oxfam

Ring the alarm

Oxfam’s tailoring program is helping women like Shompa and Ayesha, but it won’t fix the problems that forced them to flee to Bangladesh in the first place.

The ongoing violence and persecution against Rohingya people in their home country, Myanmar, must be stopped. Two years after the crisis made international headlines, Rohingya people in Myanmar still don’t have basic rights - including freedom of movement, access to citizenship, healthcare and education.   Ultimately the Rohingya people need an end to their persecution. They need durable solutions. They need a future, now.

This is why, alongside the humanitarian assistance Oxfam is providing on the ground, Oxfam is calling on Myanmar authorities to end the violence and ensure that Rohingya people in Myanmar can enjoy their rights.

Because, ultimately, what is it that Shompa wants?

“Justice,” she declares. “All I want is to go back home with recognition and justice.”

Rohingya Refugees: Working for peace, longing for home

There are close to a million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh – more than 700,000 arrived following the violence of 25 August 2017. Some have been there since the 1990s.

Smiling woman near her unstable home

Two years on

Two years on, overcrowding and poor infrastructure leaves people exposed to diseases, especially during monsoon season, and lack of legal status prevents refugees from working, studying, getting specialist medical help, or reporting crimes. Oxfam’s Senior Communications Officer in Cox’s Bazar, Mutasim Billah, explains that a ban on refugees working and the lack of education in the camps has left many refugees feeling as though they are treading water.

Two years is a long time for lives to be left on hold, and for many Rohingya this has been the case for even longer.

Though not without worries, some Rohingya refugees in the camps of Cox’s Bazar prefer sometimes to focus on the brighter side, to share examples of how they can help themselves and their communities. They were proud to tell us how they were managing, just getting on with life.

Neighbors in a crowded community

Down a crowded path between the camp shelters, Layla, 30, is a Rohingya woman who has become something of a local hero for coming up with a simple solution to an everyday problem in her neighborhood. As it starts to rain, we huddle together by her front door in plastic chairs carried over by neighbors, under a cleverly woven awning made of palm fronds and empty rice sacks. We could have reached across the path with arms outstretched and touched both Layla’s front door and that of her opposite neighbor across the path.

Gesturing out the front door, we pointed to the host community village at the end of the lane, not 10 meters from this dense grouping of camp shelters. Layla explained, “When we first arrived here, we did not have a good relationship with our neighbors from the host community. Every day there were quarrels! For us the biggest issue was water. We want water, the host community wants water.  Everyone would just go to the taps with as many bottles as they could carry and collect as much as they could.”

Water is scarce – so how to keep the peace?

"I didn’t want to see the women quarreling at the taps, so I suggested a system. At our water tap, each Rohingya family can take two pitchers of water first. Then, the host community can come and take whatever they need. If there is a bit more water, the Rohingya can come take another pitcher. I fill the containers myself for the families to come and collect."

“I manage it this way to keep the peace in the community. Sometimes people come and thank me, and I feel good. We are managing here like this!"

“Neither of us is perfect, but we are very thankful to the local people for letting us stay here. We can be respectful of each other’s values and culture while we are here."

“But if you ask us, we all say we want our citizenship, our nationality. We want to go home.”

The changing role for men

We also spoke to Kabir, who belongs to one of Oxfam’s men’s gender group which meet to talk about changing gender roles, gender-based violence and the specific challenges men face living in the camps and how to cope. Oxfam has 25 men’s groups serving about 500 men across seven camps.

Kabir told us, “There was so much we didn’t know. We learned about our responsibility to our society, our home, and our women. Women work very hard at home!"

“Most of the time we forget to acknowledge that. When we were in our own country, no one ever told us to try to understand women’s contributions. Every home had conflicts. Now that we understand this, we don’t have conflict anymore – I don’t fight with my wife.”

Providing personal fulfillment

These men’s groups are not only critical for addressing long term challenges around transforming gender roles in the camps, they also give men like Kabir a place to vent frustrations and build confidence.

He says, “I only had one year of school, I am definitely not an educated person. In the group, I learned to write my name. It feels good writing your own name! Maybe as an educated person you wouldn’t understand, but this is a really fulfilling experience for me.”

Longing for home

Refugees like Layla and Kabir work hard to find ways to cope, but in many ways, their lives are in limbo.

“Now we are safe. We got a lot of support from the people living in this village. They helped us when there was no one. They provided many things,” says Kabir with a deep gratitude.

“But in the future, I just want to go home. The camp is not a good place to live for your whole life. Here we are living on support. Mentally no one is happy as all of us want to go back. But for that we need our nationality. It is our security. Without having that, we cannot go back.”

Oxfam is providing vital aid including clean water and food to Rohingya refugees. So far, we’ve helped more than a quarter of a million people in Bangladesh and we provide ongoing humanitarian assistance to 100,000 Rohingya and Kaman Muslims confined to camps in Myanmar.

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

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