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One year after Rohingya crisis, thousands of lives saved, but challenges remain

Rebekka Toyka, Project Manager for Bangladesh, during her recent visit to Cox’s Bazar © Malteser International

In August 2017, a brutal campaign of violence drove about 680,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar to the coastal city of Cox's Bazar in neighboring Bangladesh. Malteser International immediately responded, providing healthcare for wounded and sick refugees in Bangladesh. A year later, the challenges remain immense: the camps are overcrowded, hygiene conditions are still poor, and health systems are overloaded. The monsoon season has also brought with it the risks of flooding, mudslides and water-borne diseases.

Rebekka Toyka, Project Manager for Malteser International’s Bangladesh response, was on ground in Cox’s Bazar to open our third health station in July 2018. She spoke to us about the mood in the camps and the progress that have been made so far.

What were your expectations when you returned to Cox's Bazar in July?

Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh has become the world's biggest refugee camp © Malteser International

I was very shocked at the situation of things last time. That was in February 2018. There was chaos and one could see that many people were completely exhausted and traumatized from their experiences in Myanmar. Before my second trip, I had hoped that some peace and quiet would have returned and that there would be some level of normality. That was exactly my experience and it made me very happy. Small shops and market stalls have sprung up here and there in the camps. People can buy their vegetables, toys, shampoos and even clothing. Although, people are still living in simple makeshift shelters of bamboo and plastic tarpaulins, the camp has developed into a small community.

 

Where do you see the challenges for the people in the camp at the moment?

This time I was shocked by the over crowdedness and poor hygiene conditions in the camp. There are far too many people living in too small a space. There are not enough sanitary facilities. People and families have to share public toilets, most of which are dirty no longer work. We are working with our partner Gonoshasthaya Kendra to expand our health education activities to sensitize people on important aspects of hygiene and sanitation so that diseases such as cholera do not break out.

 

What is Malteser International helping to restore health and dignity in the camps?

Our staff assist refugees in three health stations © Noor Ahmed Gelal/Malteser International

Our work in the camps is primarily focused on health, treating and preventing malnutrition as well as providing psychosocial support. I was very pleased that we were able to open our third health station. All facilities are managed by Gonoshasthaya Kendra. The employees at the health facility are incredibly motivated and committed despite the challenges they face every day. I've never seen anything like this. It is really impressive! The newest station is located in the very southern part of the mega camp. Our staff work six days in a week, treating up to 100 patients a day, especially women and small children. We provide healthcare services for the refugees and member of the host communities.To reach people who do not come directly to us, we train volunteers from the refugee camps and the surrounding communities in various areas such as hygiene promotion, healthcare and psychosocial support. These trained volunteers visit the refugees in their shelters and then pass on their knowledge. For instance, they measure people's upper arms with a tape measure to determine if they are malnourished. If this is the case, they refer them to us for further treatment or referral to special facilities outside the camp. Volunteers receive an allowance for their work.

The monsoon season has begun and the refugees are already feeling the impact. To what extent are the heavy rains adversely affecting the lives of the refugees?

The monsoon season has worsened the already difficult living conditions in the camps. © Malteser International

One of our health stations was badly hit by the first rains and we had to shut down for a few days. Fortunately, the rain has not yet caused any major accidents, but of course it is wreaking havoc on shelters in the camp and worsening the already poor hygienic conditions.

I went through the camp with the staff and visited two families living together in a very small shack. The stench there was hard to bear. The streets, sewers, streams and rivers all become flooded during the rainy season, leaving waste everywhere. The shacks are mainly made of plastic tarpaulins, and cannot withstand the strong winds. Many shelters are built on the steep slopes of hills that put them highly at risk of mudslides.

Trees were cut down to make way for the refugees, who also dug up the roots for wood. This had made the slopes even weaker and prone to collapse. I sincerely hope that the storms and rains do not become even stronger. For now, we are keeping our fingers crossed that this does not lead to a severe catastrophe.

What does the future hold for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh? Will they be able to return to their homes in Myanmar?

The Myanmar government has given assurances of a return, but they have made these pledges subject to certain conditions. For instance, refugees are required to produce papers proving that they have lived in Myanmar for several generations. Most refugees have never had these papers or lost them when they fled. Myanmar has also been planning to take back 1,500 refugees a week since the beginning of this year, but so far almost no one has been willing to return. This is also because people fear renewed violence. I hope that a solution will soon be reached, because the current conditions in the camp do not allow for a permanent settlement in Cox’s Bazar. Although one gets the feeling that the refugees have settled in.

My trip to Cox’s Bazar was filled with smiling faces of women, children and men, who despite their experiences, have shown resilience even in the squalid conditions they live in. Some sense of peace and stability has returned. In spite of the challenges that remain, I came back with the feeling that our efforts have brought positive change to the lives of thousands of people. We have to keep doing the good work we are doing.

 

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