“Many NGOs are looking at this crisis from the perspective of the last two years, but I’m looking at it from the past 40 years – my whole life. I’m still trying to prove my identity as a human being and that causes me immense pain and suffering.”
These are the words of a Rohingya man who Arunn Jegan first met in 2017, when a renewed wave of targeted violence against the Rohingya in Rakhine state, Myanmar, forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee across the border into Bangladesh.
Arunn, from Sydney, is an emergency coordinator with Médecins Sans Frontières. He recently returned to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh and met up with this man and his family again.
“Two years on [from August 2017], there are better roads, more latrines and clean water points in and around the camps,” says Arunn. “There is more sense of order. But conditions in the camps remain precarious and big questions about people’s futures are still unanswered.”
Decades of persecution reach crisis point
In August 2017, pillars of smoke could be seen rising from Rakhine state, Myanmar. The sight signalled the beginning of the largest-ever episode of violence against the Rohingya.
Those arriving in Bangladesh shared stories of their villages being burnt to the ground and of people being raped and killed, in a concerted campaign of violence by the Myanmar authorities. “At the border crossings, we saw Rohingya arriving with burns, gunshots, lacerations and smoke asphyxiation,” says Arunn. “The trauma was visible on people’s faces and bodies.”
“They settled in informal camps that were already well below basic living standards,” adds Arunn. “One of the most striking things was the lack of dignity people had… they were ordered around by many different people and organisations. They did not seem to have much say in what happened to them.”
"Conditions in the camps remain precarious and big questions about people’s futures are still unanswered.”
Since 25 August 2017 to date, more than 740,000 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar – many seeking safety in camps in Cox’s Bazar. But this is not the first time the Rohingya have been forced from their home; the ethnic group has endured marginalisation and persecution in Myanmar for over 50 years. Lacking both citizenship rights in Myanmar and refugee status in Bangladesh – where they are unable to work or access formal education – they remain bound to a life of limbo and largely reliant on humanitarian aid.
Ongoing aid needed
Many of the health issues Médecins Sans Frontières treats camp residents for, such as acute watery diarrhoea and skin infections, are caused by the poor living conditions. There are still not enough clean latrines, and it is difficult for people to find clean water and food. Our teams see tens of thousands of patients each month: between August 2017 and June 2019, we performed over 1.3 million consultations. Teams have also distributed more than 87.8 million litres of clean water.
People are better protected from outbreaks of diseases like diphtheria and measles, thanks to several vaccination campaigns carried out by Médecins Sans Frontières in partnership with other medical organisations and the Bangladeshi Ministry of Health. However, the risk still exists, and routine vaccinations are vital. Mental healthcare is also an urgent priority, to support the many who have witnessed traumatic events, or experience hopelessness about their future.
Maternity care services are still not reaching many women. Many Rohingya prefer to give birth at home, aided by traditional birth attendants, while others remain unable to reach care due to barriers such as distance from a healthcare facility. Women who do come to a hospital to deliver often arrive late, without seeking antenatal care beforehand. Our staff continue to see women facing complicated deliveries due to conditions such as pre-eclampsia, or prolonged labour.
A regional issue
This humanitarian crisis not only affects Bangladesh but has regional impacts too. Currently, Médecins Sans Frontières teams are working to support Rohingya who remain in Rakhine state, as well as those who have fled to Malaysia.
“Over the past two years, very little real effort has been made to address the underlying causes of the discrimination the Rohingya face and enable them to return home safely,” says Benoit de Gryse, operations manager for Myanmar and Malaysia. “If the Rohingya are to have any chance of a better future, the international community must redouble its diplomatic efforts with Myanmar and champion greater legal recognition for an incredibly disempowered group.”
“My biggest hope [for the Rohingya] is that they are able to return home safely,” says Arunn. “Until then, I hope they are afforded greater self-sufficiency, education rights, and the legal recognition they deserve. If these things don’t happen now, I fear the Rohingya will be in the same situation in another two years, only with even fewer services available to them.”
“We have an opportunity to do better by them.”