Photo: Action Against Hunger, Bangladesh
Voices from Bangladesh: The Rakhine Refugee Crisis
As crisis and violence grips Myanmar's Rakhine State, ordinary men and women tell their stories.
Sep 20 2017
Since 25 August, an outbreak of heavy violence in Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine State has resulted in an estimated 270,000 people fleeing across the border into Bangladesh over the past three weeks.
A further 40,000 extremely vulnerable refugees have reportedly been waiting in temporary shelters at the border for days and are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, particularly children and young mothers.
The fall-out of ongoing violence in the country, as exemplified by the plight of refugees and those close to the fighting, threatens many thousands of innocent men, women and children with exposure to disease, inadequate access to clean water, and grave food insecurity. The stories of individuals, their fighting spirit and their loss, in many aspects, are an illustration of the cost of Rakhine’s current instability and the toll it has taken on the average man, woman and child. Nurun, Hasina, Abdul and Kulsuma, who are some of the refugees in the Kutupalong Hunger Action Emergency Centres where emergency food is prepared for people, tell us of their plight.
Nurun, 26, crossed Myanmar’s border into Bangladesh on August 28, three days after violence erupted in Rakhine State. She arrived in Bangladesh with eight of her children. "I had to leave one of my children there and I do not know where my husband is," Nurun says worried. "When the violence intensified, we ran to hide where we could during the middle of the night. The only priority was to survive."
Nurun Nahar is concerned about whether her eight-year-old son has crossed the border with someone and hopes to meet her husband and son in Bangladesh where she and the rest of her family have taken refuge in the ongoing crisis. "Yesterday when we entered Bangladesh, we did not know where to go and stayed on the edge of the road. We were hungry and the children were crying. A stranger saw us and offered us food and a place to stay. This morning we were given more food. I am ashamed to ask for more, they are already doing much for us. I wish I could be home in Rakhine," says Nurun sadly as she attends to her fifteen-day year old son.
Hasina, 27, a single mother of five children, arrived in Bangladesh with her children after spending two nights at the border. When the conflict erupted in the north of Rakhine, her husband was killed in cross-fire. "He was not a target. I was working on the paddy field that day when I learned from my neighbours that he had died as they recounted the incident they had witnessed . That afternoon, I had to flee from my home to save my children. I did not even have time to bury his body." Her voice grew softer as she shared her story.
Like other refugees, Hasina and her children had to walk many miles in torrential rain, sleep outdoors and hide away in the shrubs to escape violence before reaching Bangladesh. "When we crossed the river, there were relatives of some of the refugees who had come to help them. However, we did not have anyone. It took hours to find help. Then a man from the village came to help us," says Hasina. Without relatives in Bangladesh, Hasina is afraid to think about the future. She wants to return to Myanmar where her parents remained behind, however she is unsure they will be alive when the family returns.
It was about three o'clock in the morning when Abdul Malek's family woke to the crackle of gunfire and screams. Three nights after the escalation of violence, Abdul, 48, and his family joined the thousands of families pouring over the border into Bangladesh. "We walked in the dark for eight hours, without stopping. We were afraid of being shot if the military saw us," says Abdul as he recounted the terrifying experience. Before moving to a refugee settlement, he and his family spent a night in the pitch-black of no-man's land where the Bangladesh Border Guard closely monitors Myanmar-Bangladesh border.
Abdul discovered a temporary shelter for his family in the settlement, yet he does not know what the future holds. In Rakhine, he was the master of a madrasa, now he feels trapped in a terrible situation, a crisis which appears to have no end in sight. "I am grateful to have at least one meal a day so my family can survive."
Five months pregnant, twenty-seven year old Kulsuma was evacuated from Bangladesh by her husband and parents after violence broke out and intensified in North Rakhine where she and her family lived. She entered Bangladesh with two of her children, both of whom are under the age of five. "Last year, in October, when the situation got worse, my brother-in-law and his family came to Bangladesh to take refuge. My children and I will stay with them. I hear my parents will try to cross the border tonight to join us. I do not know where we will go in the future. They have burned our houses," says Kulsuma.
Action Against Hunger warns of worsening humanitarian crisis in an already tense region
Since escalating tensions in Myanmar reached breaking point, Action Against Hunger has reported a major influx of refugees into the port city of Cox’s Bazar in south-eastern Bangladesh. The majority of new arrivals are women and children, many of whom are traumatised, undernourished and in need of immediate humanitarian assistance.
“We are working to respond to the alarming number of refugees crossing into Bangladesh, and are scaling up as fast as we can, adapting our response and mobilising emergency teams and resources to assist people as soon as they arrive,” said Action Against Hunger’s Country Director for Bangladesh, Nipin Gangadharan. “We are extremely concerned. To put it simply, an influx of more than a quarter of a million people could overwhelm any system,” he warned.
The violence in Myanmar has also forced the aid agency to temporarily suspend its health and nutrition programme in Northern Rakhine State, leaving 9,000 children and 1,475 pregnant women and nursing mothers without humanitarian assistance. Action Against Hunger is calling for immediate additional funding to meet the urgent, basic survival needs of vulnerable populations.
To date, Action Against Hunger is strengthening its capacity to respond and is ready to mobilise resources to meet the urgent needs of refugees. Since 2014, Action Against Hunger has been meeting the needs of refugees in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, not only in official UNHCR camps in Kutupalong and Nayapara, but also in the informal refugee settlement of Kutupalong. The organisation is prioritising programmes to prevent and treat acute nutrition, improve health and care practices for mothers and pregnant women and to deliver safe water, sanitation and hygiene assistance to 167,000 refugees already hosted in Bangladesh as well as families in host communities.
The humanitarian response to the influx of refugees into Bangladesh will require leveraging additional resources immediately to maintain the scale and to expand services to vulnerable populations. Action Against Hunger calls for immediate additional funding to meet the urgent, basic survival needs of vulnerable populations.
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