Safe from the violence they experienced in Myanmar, the Rohingya people are now encountering serious problems in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps in Bangladesh.
In one of the tarpaulin and bamboo huts which form the labyrinth that is Kutupalong camp, Nour* cuddles her eight-month-old daughter Ayesha*. One year ago, this 25-year-old woman was forced to flee her home in Myanmar. Exhausted after her journey, Nour gave birth to her little girl shortly upon arrival. “Before being treated by Terre des hommes, Ayesha was thin, weak and very often ill,” she says.
Carried through terror, born into exile
Little Ayesha was born into the world’s largest refugee camp. More than 700,000 Rohingya refugees have now joined the 200,000 people who had already lived in Kutupalong for decades. Since August 2017, members of this Muslim minority from Myanmar’s Rakhine state have been fleeing persecution. They have suffered through murder, rape and having their villages burnt to the ground. A damning UN report describes it as genocide.
In one of Terre des Hommes’ seven nutrition centres, Ayesha receives care and is now a normal weight again. Other mothers and babies file in, most in a critical condition.
“Nearly 15 percent of the 450,000 refugee children suffer from severe malnutrition,” explains Iris Mariad, Terre des Hommes health project manager. Terre des Hommes’ nutrition centres have helped more than 20,000 children under five and provided more than 1,500 consultations for pregnant and breastfeeding women.
The first thousand days of a child’s life are crucial for their development. Nutritional deficiencies at this stage can have consequences, such as delayed growth and cognitive impairment. “Malnutrition makes children more vulnerable to disease as their immune systems can no longer protect them,” says Iris.
Heavy monsoon rains between June and September increase the risk of floods and epidemics such as cholera, making water unsafe. Preventing the spread of disease involves not only fighting malnutrition, but also measures improving hygiene and water quality.
Terre des Hommes has intensified its efforts to ensure access to drinking water by treating water sources with chlorine and rehabilitating and maintaining latrines. Families are also informed about how to implement measures to maintain hygiene during this period. Our projects have covered the water, sanitation and hygiene needs of more than 30,000 refugees.
The monsoon season is over and there is some respite for Rohingya families. But they still have challenges to overcome to survive each day and psychological wounds to heal. Tensions are also emerging between host and refugee communities which need to be defused.
Sakib Nazmul, a Terre des Hommes psychosocial coordinator of Bangladeshi origin notes there is frustration among people in his community. “The local population was very welcoming at first, but this area was already very poor before the crisis. Now, almost one million completely destitute people have settled here.” Terre des Hommes’ next project, in an area where both communities are living, aims to develop a sustainable solution and will offer support both to Rohingya and Bangladeshi people.
Nour does not want her daughter to grow up in a camp, saying “she needs somewhere permanent to live.” But like many Rohingya refugees, she is still too terrified by what she experienced – and the risk of it all happening again – to consider returning to Myanmar.
*Names have been changed to protect their privacy.
Picture: A mother nurses her baby in Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh. ©Tdh/Angélique Bühlmann