Under looming dark clouds, Rohingya children await a second chance - Bangladesh

Above: A child being examined at a clinic run by the Emergency Health Unit in Cox's Bazar. Photo credit: Unni Krishnan/Save the Children. Date: May 2018.

Above: A child being examined at a clinic run by the Emergency Health Unit in Cox's Bazar. Photo credit: Unni Krishnan/Save the Children. Date: May 2018.

Above: Fresh medical supplies arrived in Cox's Bazar. Photo credit: Dr Unni Krishnan/Save the Children. Date: May 2018.

Above: Fresh medical supplies arrived in Cox's Bazar. Photo credit: Dr Unni Krishnan/Save the Children. Date: May 2018.

May 2018. Author: Dr Unni Krishnan, Director, Emergency Health Unit, Save the Children. 

Monsoon rains are imminent in this part of Bangladesh, one of the most flood prone parts of the country. This year’s rainy season is going to be even more dangerous than the last, with almost 800,000 Rohingya refugees now living in overcrowded camps. UN and aid agencies have warned of the potential for a “disaster within a disaster”.

Floods can inundate camps, and cause landslides on denuded hill slopes. They can cut off the water supply, sanitation and health care systems, and cause epidemics. Rohingya children are particularly vulnerable, suffering high levels of malnutrition and low rates of immunisation back in Myanmar, and now living in harsh conditions where they rely on food rations to survive.

Aid agencies are racing against time. Since August 2017, Bangladesh opened its borders to Rohingya fleeing brutal violence and killing in Myanmar. They arrived in the thousands every day – dehydrated, sick, malnourished and distressed. In September, I came across children who were too tired and overwhelmed to move or even smile. They had walked barefoot for weeks, some of them escaping bullets and witnessing or experiencing unspeakable human rights violations back home.

In what was the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world, Rohingya refugees settled in a relatively small amount of land, in a densely populated country quickly creating the world’s biggest refugee camp. Jungles frequented by elephants were even cleared so Rohingya families could set up tents. In October four Rohingya people, including three children, were trampled to death by an elephant in Balukhali makeshift camp.

This week, while visiting primary health centre clinics run by Save the Children’s Emergency Health Unit, partly funded by the Australian Government through the Australian Humanitarian Partnership (AHP), I saw Rohingya children playing football and flying kites. They had food and access to basic health and nutrition services.

More needs to be done, however. Bangladesh’s Ministry of Health, together with local organisations, UN and aid agencies, is mounting a massive cholera vaccination programme. A million Rohingya and host community members are expected to be covered in one of the largest such efforts of this kind.

However, there are other diseases and illness lurking here. A diphtheria outbreak has already claimed 40 deaths. About 25 per cent of the toilets and half of the wells in the camps are expected to be severely damaged by floods. Such flooded conditions, cramped spaces, contaminated water and crowded camps are an ideal setting for disease outbreaks.

Storms and floods amplify anxiety among refugee children who are already distressed by the inexplicable violence they faced back home in Myanmar. Children are very resilient but there is a limit to what young minds can withstand. We need a strong, thoughtful response from the international community. Rohingya children deserve a second chance and it is possible to change their sad tales.

In 2017, Save the Children received $3 million through the AHP to assist in responding to the Myanmar-Bangladesh crisis. The length of the AHP response is October 2017 until September 2018. This immediate life-saving aid includes shelter and non-food items, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), emergency health and protection to vulnerable households. This aid will also provide education, protection, and integrated health-nutrition-WASH programming.