COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh: The exodus of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar into Bangladesh has reached 379,000 in just over two weeks, according to the latest estimates by aid agencies.
The population of refugees at the two official refugee campsites run by the United Nations refugee agency UNCHR in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar has doubled since Aug 25 – leaving aid groups struggling to cope with the influx.
Another roughly 188,000 refugees are living in spontaneous settlements – built haphazardly by roadsides, in forests along the border with Myanmar.
The Myanmar military offensive in the western state of Rakhine was triggered by a series of guerrilla attacks on Aug 25 on security posts and an army camp in which about a dozen people were killed.
“Nobody expected people in these numbers to come across at this speed,” said Chris Lom, spokesperson for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
“We are potentially going to have one of the world’s largest (internally displaced persons) IDP camps in one concentrated area.”
Bangladesh shares a 193km land and water frontier with Myanmar, and refugees have been arriving by boat and by foot after they were allegedly driven from their homes by Buddhist civilians and army troops.
The Myanmar government says it is targeting “terrorists”, while refugees say the offensive aims to push Rohingya out of Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
“People coming in are feeling sick, because they have walked hundreds of miles, crossing mountains and rivers without anything to eat – and they don’t have any food or medicine now either,” said Mr Lom.
“We have a big humanitarian crisis that we need to communicate to the world.”
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited the Kutupalong refugee camp on Sep 12, with local newspapers reporting that she has condemned the “acts against humanity and violation of human rights”.
Sheikh Hasina has also urged the international community to put pressure on the Myanmar government to take back their people, but assured her government’s support for humanitarian aid for the refugees.
Early last week, Bangladeshi officials said they planned to go ahead with a controversial plan to develop an isolated, flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal to temporarily house tens of thousands of refugees, drawing fresh criticism from the international community.
On Sep 7, the government in Dhaka bowed to pressure and pledged another 1,500 acres of land for refugee campsites near Cox’s Bazar.
The situation in the camps remains chaotic, with the majority of the refugee women and children.
“These people out in the street are extremely vulnerable,” said Lom. “You see pregnant women, children, without protection and a roof over their head.”
Tired, hungry, thirsty, devastated from the trauma and loss of their loved ones, refugees carry sacks of their belongings on their backs and pull along their livestock. Some even carry older relatives on bamboo sticks.
One old man from Maungdaw was carried by his son and 15-year-old grandson for the nine days it took them to cover the 13km journey from their home to the shores of the Naf river that divides Myanmar and Bangladesh.
“He is too old, his body can’t support him, so we have to carry him,” the family told Channel NewsAsia. “It was painful, but he’s our grandfather. For nine days we carried him. In these nine days, locals have given us food. With this food, we survived.”
Announcements blasted over the loud hailer warned locals not to house Rohingyas, but Channel NewsAsia understands many are doing so anyway.
The UNHCR said that they have received reports of violence against women, though they could not independently verify the claims or who was behind the attacks.
“These people need a safe place where they won’t be persecuted, won’t be tortured by others, where they can be safe with their families,” said UNHCR spokesperson Shovik Das Tamal.
“This is the first thing that the people of Bangladesh want to provide.”
The UN has called for a US$77 million aid appeal to fulfil the demands of providing for the influx of refugees, which include building more infrastructure around makeshift and spontaneous campsites.
However, even with the money, it will take time before help effectively reaches the refugees, said Lom.
“It’s very difficult to access people who are not in some sort of structured settlement that has roads, that has some sort of order,” he said.
And with more refugee settlements springing up each day, aid groups are merely in the process of trying to “map the disaster”, said Lom.
“The mechanics of an emergency response are extremely complex and it is a huge logistical operation to lay out a site that is going to provide adequate services to these people,” he said.
“You need a whole army of people – engineers, doctors, people who are highly trained and skilled.”
The UNHCR sent in two emergency flights with 91 metric-tonnes of shelter material to meet the immediate aid needs of 25,000 refugees this week, with further flights being planned that will deliver aid for 120,000 refugees in total.
“The planes delivered support needs like water bottles and blankets; it also had some kitchen materials, so they can cook rice and lentils if they receive it,” said Tamal.
Local media have been labelling the attacks by the Myanmar military as a genocide. The UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein also spoke out against the attacks, calling it a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
Aid groups on the ground, however, reserved comment.
“Our agencies here are focusing on getting aid on the ground I think we have to leave the legal definitions and politics to others,” said Lom.
“We have no access to attack sites in Rakhine state. So it’s impossible to verify how many people have died on the other side, and it’s impossible to estimate how many people will die here if we don’t get aid to them soon enough.”
Authorities in Bangladesh are also having to deal with Rohingyas dying while making the perilous journey on the Naf river estuary that divides Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Since the crisis began, at least 99 Rohingya refugees, most of whom were children, have drowned while making the crossing, according to Bangladeshi border guard officials.
According to the locals, boats capsize everyday and 33 bodies have washed up since Aug 26.
Mahamud Zomir was on a boat that capsized. “Those who could, they got off and swam,” the 35-year-old told Channel NewsAsia.
He used a drum to float ashore, but his cousin, Anwara Begum, 30, and her 10-year-old daughter as well as her seven-year-old son did not survive. Their bodies have not been found.
“I feel very bad about this incident,” said 25-year-old Rahim Ullhah, a local fisherman. “When I see the dead bodies, I feel very shocked.”
According to UN estimates, hundreds of boats have arrived in the Bangladeshi villages of Shamlapur and Shah Porir Dwip on the Naf River since Sep 6.
“We really hope that the international community can speak up to help Bangladesh deal with this crisis,” said the UNHCR’s Tamal.