Ro­hingya cri­sis: Why aid is slow to reach refugees

Muscat Daily - - OPINION - Justin Rowlatt

You ex­pect chaotic scenes at the be­gin­ning of a refugee cri­sis of the scale we are see­ing here in south­east­ern Bangladesh.

But al­most two-and-a-half weeks later, the be­gin­nings of an or­gan­ised re­sponse should have at least started to emerge.

We are not see­ing that here in Cox’s Bazar, where many Ro­hingya flee­ing Myan­mar have ended up.

The C-130 trans­port air­craft loaded with food and shel­ter have not been land­ing at the air­port; you don’t see aid trucks loaded with tents and wa­ter-pu­ri­fy­ing units lum­ber­ing along the busy roads.

In­deed, one of the most shock­ing things among all the hor­ror here is that fact many Ro­hingya say they have had no con­tact with any aid agen­cies or in­ter­na­tional aid bod­ies at all.

Many say they have had de­tails - their names and the vil­lages they are from - taken at the bor­der. Af­ter that, they have been on their own.

Vir­tu­ally all the squalid shel­ters you see in the vast makeshift cities that refugees are hack­ing out of the scrub in the low hills are built and paid for by the refugees them­selves.

A thriv­ing new econ­omy has grown up be­side the road­side. Stalls sell freshly cut bam­boo poles and flimsy black plas­tic sheets to the refugees.

If you don’t have money, you don’t get any­thing.

Tens of thou­sands of peo­ple have been sleep­ing out in the open de­spite the mon­soon rains.

Food is in short sup­ply. Huge crowds ap­pear around the trucks

from which well-mean­ing Bangladeshis throw food and clothes down into seething masses.

I’ve seen chil­dren and old peo­ple be­ing tram­pled in the chaos.

That is not to say that noth­ing is be­ing done.

All the main aid agen­cies and in­ter­na­tional bod­ies are here.On the record they are diplo­matic. They will ad­mit that lots of peo­ple

are not get­ting the help they need and will con­cede that the or­gan­i­sa­tion of the re­lief ef­fort could be bet­ter.

But speak to them off the record and you get a dif­fer­ent story. They say they are frus­trated by the lack of co-or­di­na­tion and the re­stric­tions im­posed by the Bangladeshi govern­ment on how they can op­er­ate.

The most ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple is

the treat­ment of the United Na­tions’ main refugee body, the UNHCR.

Ac­cord­ing to a long­stand­ing or­der, the UNHCR can only op­er­ate in two of­fi­cial refugee camps, Ku­tu­pa­long and Naya­para.

Both camps have been es­tab­lished for many years and were home to some 20,000 to 30,000 Ro­hingya who fled Myan­mar in ear­lier waves of mi­gra­tion.

The UN says that since this lat­est huge ex­o­dus of Ro­hingya be­gan on Au­gust 25, the pop­u­la­tion of the camps has reached 70,000, which is ‘beyond sat­u­ra­tion point’.

So all the rest of the 400,000 or so new refugees are out­side the camps and - ac­cord­ing to the Bangladeshi govern­ment’s rules, UNHCR can­not work with them.

It is an ex­tra­or­di­nary sit­u­a­tion.

On Tues­day the UNHCR an­nounced it was be­gin­ning a huge air­lift of aid - two large cargo planes car­ry­ing fam­ily tents, blan­kets, jer­rycans, sleep­ing mats and other es­sen­tial items.

It says it will be enough to meet the im­me­di­ate needs of 25,000 refugees and that fur­ther flights are planned, bring­ing emer­gency aid for some 120,000 refugees in to­tal.

Yet, as things stand, the UNHCR has no au­thor­ity to de­liver these es­sen­tial sup­plies to the peo­ple who need them.

So why is the Bangladeshi govern­ment mak­ing it so hard?

The coun­try faces an ag­o­nis­ing dilemma.

Many Bangladeshis know just how aw­ful it is to be ex­iled.

More than 10mn peo­ple fled the coun­try dur­ing the bloody civil war in 1971, which led to the cre­ation of the in­de­pen­dent na­tion of Bangladesh from what had been East Pak­istan.

It wants to help these fel­low Mus­lims who have suf­fered such ter­ri­ble per­se­cu­tion.

But it also knows the refugees will be a huge bur­den for what is one of the poor­est and most densely pop­u­lated coun­tries in the world.

And do not for­get that these are not the first Ro­hingya refugees who have sought shel­ter in Bangladesh. There were al­ready 400,000 here, ac­cord­ing to govern­ment es­ti­mates.

So while the govern­ment wants to of­fer help and sup­port, as the Bangladeshi Prime Min­is­ter said on Tues­day, it does not want to make life too easy for the refugees for fear that more will be en­cour­aged to cross over.

The strat­egy car­ries risks - and not just for the refugees who suf­fer as a con­se­quence. So far the world’s op­pro­brium has been fo­cused on Myan­mar.

But if the scenes of mis­ery and de­spair we have been see­ing from here con­tinue, very soon it could be Bangladesh that finds it­self at the sharp end of the world’s dis­ap­proval.


Ro­hingya refugee women dis­trib­ute food in the Ku­tu­pa­long refugee camp in Bangladesh on Fri­day. The United Na­tions said this week there was an ur­gent need for a co­or­di­nated re­sponse to the mas­sive in­flux of des­per­ate peo­ple flee­ing Myan­mar for Bangladesh, most of whom have still had no as­sis­tance from aid agen­cies or the state

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