ON THE GROUND – Stark re­al­ity for hun­dreds of thou­sands or refugees caught in limbo

Stark re­al­ity for hun­dreds of thou­sands of refugees caught in limbo in Bangladesh

Mizzima Business Weekly - - CONTENTS - Fatih Isik

COX’S BAZAR – It is a one-hour drive from the long­est con­tin­ual nat­u­ral sea beach one of Bangladesh’s favourite lo­cal tourist des­ti­na­tions lo­cated in Cox’s Bazar - to the dirt and squalor of the Ku­tu­pa­long and Balukhali refugee camps close to the border to Myan­mar. Af­ter pass­ing sev­eral vil­lages and lo­cal au­thor­ity check­points, my driver sig­nals that we have ar­rived whilst try­ing to drive around the crowds of refugees.

One of the things that strikes me most is the heavy smell of rub­bish in the heat as we get out of the car, and the large num­bers of chil­dren run­ning around. I ap­proach a group of chil­dren play­ing be­tween makeshift shel­ters to ask about their age. A man in the back­ground replies that they are be­tween 6 and 10 years old. When I ask him how long he has been in the camp for, the man says that he is liv­ing here since the early 1990s.

This is a painful re­minder – while the Rohingya refugees have been in the spotlight over the last five months, the prob­lem of an eth­nic com­mu­nity in limbo has been go­ing drag­ging on for decades gain­ing lit­tle at­ten­tion. Ex­perts claim the Mus­lim Rohingya are one of the most per­se­cuted mi­nori­ties in the world.

As I ap­proach an aid distri­bu­tion tent, an NGO worker tells me about their work in the over­crowded camps and I learn about the re­cent deaths and the in­creas­ing amount of diph­the­ria and cholera cases, with chil­dren par­tic­u­larly at risk. Af­ter speak­ing to an­other doc­tor from Kuwait to get the lat­est num­bers of new in­fec­tions, I start re­al­iz­ing the risk of be­ing ex­posed to these dis­eases with­out vac­ci­na­tion.

The size of the prob­lem be­comes more ap­par­ent as I travel through the area. On the way to neigh­bour­ing Balukhali refugee camp, we pass by the tran­sit cen­tres run by UNHCR, where the most vul­ner­a­ble new ar­rivals are pro­vided with food, wa­ter and med­i­cal checks. At the en­trance of Balukhali camp, a group of young men queue at a food distri­bu­tion point, many of them wait­ing for sev­eral hours. That is when I re­al­ize the im­por­tance of lo­cal and for­eign vol­un­teers who come here to help with co­or­di­na­tion and distri­bu­tion of food and med­i­cal sup­plies.

An es­ti­mated 650,000 Rohingya peo­ple fled into Bangladesh from neigh­bour­ing Myan­mar since Au­gust last year, in the wake of the mil­i­tary crack­down in the vil­lages of north­ern Rakhine State af­ter at­tacks by the Arakan Rohingya Sol­i­dar­ity Army against gov­ern­ment se­cu­rity posts.

This is a painful re­minder – while the Rohingya refugees have been in the spotlight over the last five months, the prob­lem of an eth­nic com­mu­nity in limbo has been go­ing drag­ging on for decades gain­ing lit­tle at­ten­tion.

This is a ma­jor hu­man­i­tar­ian dis­as­ter, a long time in the mak­ing. The com­bined pop­u­la­tion of the dis­placed Rohingya pop­u­la­tion is ap­prox­i­mately 820,000, most of whom live in makeshift set­tle­ments such as the Ku­tu­pa­long and Balukhali refugee camps in Ukhia, a di­vi­sion of Cox’s Bazar district. As the sit­u­a­tion in the refugee camps is wors­en­ing, 31 deaths and 3,954 sus­pected cases of diph­the­ria have been re­ported from Cox’s Bazar be­tween Novem­ber 8, 2017 and Jan­uary 11, 2018, ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion. Médecins Sans Fron­tières (MSF), along­side with other or­ga­ni­za­tions, are on the ground to help treat ris­ing num­ber of pa­tients with diph­the­ria and cholera dis­eases. To limit the spread of dis­eases, a vac­ci­na­tion pro­gramme has been ini­ti­ated by WHO, UNICEF and the Min­istry of Health and Fam­ily Wel­fare on Jan­uary 1, 2018, with nearly 160,000 chil­dren be­ing vac­ci­nated in the Tek­naf and Ukhiya sub-dis­tricts.

Mr. Edouard Beigbeder, UNICEF Coun­try Rep­re­sen­ta­tive, stresses the risk to the youngest of the refugees. “Chil­dren are par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to diph­the­ria. Vol­un­teers are mak­ing door-to-door vis­its in the Rohingya set­tle­ments to en­sure all chil­dren re­ceive vac­ci­na­tion,” he said.

Mr Beigbeder said the mas­sive in­flux within a very short time has heav­ily af­fected ba­sic ser­vices in the set­tle­ment ar­eas. “They have no choice but to live in a very con­gested en­vi­ron­ment, which is im­pact­ing their health and qual­ity of life. We are mak­ing con­tin­ued ef­forts to im­prove con­di­tions of the camps. At the same time, diph­the­ria vac­ci­na­tion is vi­tal to

re­duc­ing the risk of fur­ther out­break,” he said. Read the news and you might be for­given for think­ing the refugee prob­lem is about to be solved. Myan­mar and Bangladesh signed an agree­ment to start the vol­un­tary repa­tri­a­tion of the refugees within two years, which was set to start on Jan­uary 23. How­ever, Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repa­tri­a­tion Com­mis­sioner, Mo­ham­mad Abul Kalam, an­nounced the de­lay of the repa­tri­a­tion, due to in­com­ple­tion in ver­i­fy­ing the iden­ti­ties of peo­ple to be repa­tri­ated.

“We have not made the prepa­ra­tions re­quired to send back peo­ple from to­mor­row. A lot of prepa­ra­tion is still needed,” Kalam told AFP.

Some Rohingya have protested that they do not want to be sent back into what is in ef­fect a war zone on north­ern Rakhine State with­out as­sur­ances of na­tion­al­ity ver­i­fi­ca­tion and the chance to re­turn to their homes – not be placed in­def­i­nitely in hold­ing camps, as has been the case with vic­tims of the 2012 vi­o­lence.

My vis­its to the camps gave me pause for thought. The stark re­al­ity is that for many refugees – in­clud­ing the vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren – a state of limbo may well be their re­al­ity for a long time to come. Fatih Isik re­cently vis­ited Bangladesh to re­port for Mizzima.

Photos: Fatih Isik for Mizzima

Chil­dren and women are the most vul­ner­a­ble in the camps.

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