In Bangladesh, an unfolding humanitarian crisis

Rohingya crowd the side of the road waiting for food distribution outside Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh on September 10, 2017. Photo by: Poppy McPherson

YANGON, Myanmar — In mid-September, several days after arriving in Bangladesh from conflict-torn Western Myanmar, 18-year-old Rashida Begum sat with her baby by the side of the road, under the shade of a tree. She had lost her brother and sister somewhere in the crowd as they fled. Now in Cox’s Bazar, she was alone in a sea of thousands. “I have no house, I live in the street like this,” she said, as her four-month-old crawled in her lap.

They were waiting not for aid distribution from international agencies — like many Rohingya interviewed by Devex, they said they had received nothing — but for scores of trucks manned by Bangladeshis who tossed snacks and shoes to Rohingya refugees waiting with outstretched arms. The roads were lined with families nestled under tarps. Trampled clothing lay on the ground: the new arrivals needed food, water, and shelter, not T-shirts.

Now, nearly six weeks on from the start of the crisis, conditions in the camps are still being described as chaotic as thousands of exhausted, traumatized Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority, continue to pour in daily, and aid agencies struggle to handle the influx.

While United Nations officials and international NGOs cite the urgent need to “scale up,” staff on the ground say the humanitarian response has been hampered by funding shortfalls and bureaucratic obstacles that have left agencies without approval to work and vital supplies stuck in transit.

At a press conference in Cox’s Bazar on Tuesday, Mark Lowcock, the U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator, said aid agencies had delivered 9 million food rations over six weeks and inoculated more than 100,000 children, but conditions continued to be “terrible.” Now, aid workers fear an outbreak of cholera — endemic in Bangladesh — may be imminent. “We need to do a lot more to scale up beyond what we have done so far,” said Lowcock.

“It’s an immediate wave, an injection of hundreds of thousands of people in very few days and in an area that is relatively deprived.”

— Paolo Lubrano, Oxfam’s regional humanitarian manager for Asia

An ‘unprecedented’ crisis

This is a humanitarian crisis that has happened faster, on a greater scale, than most aid workers can remember.  

After August 25, when Rohingya militants attacked police posts across Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state and the army responded with a brutal crackdown, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya crossed the border within days. Since then, Rohingya have continued to flee what Amnesty International is calling a “scorched earth campaign” by Myanmar’s military, who are accused of mass arson, indiscriminate killings, and rape. The army insists Rohingya militants are urging the exodus as a way to generate sympathy for the population.

More than 500,000 Rohingya are now in Bangladesh, adding to an existing population estimated at more than 300,000.

“This crisis has been one of the fastest displacements that I can remember,” said Paolo Lubrano, Oxfam’s regional humanitarian manager for Asia. “It’s an immediate wave, an injection of hundreds of thousands of people in very few days and in an area that is relatively deprived.”

“Back in June I was working on South Sudan, where a million people crossed in two to three years,” said Kyle Degraw, Save the Children’s global emergency and humanitarian communications manager. “It does feel like a unique crisis just because there are so many people in such a short period of time.”

A large proportion of the new arrivals — about 60 percent — are children, many of whom were already severely malnourished before fleeing.

“The humanitarian response has been inadequate, but this crisis is in many ways unprecedented, particularly in the scale of refugee movement in such a short period of time,” said Matt Wells, Amnesty International’s senior crisis adviser. “The Rohingya are also an extremely vulnerable population, due to the systemic discrimination in Myanmar that has long affected their access to food and medical care, and the fact that many refugees have gone days without eating while hiding and fleeing from the army’s attacks,” he said.

Challenging logistics

The conditions in Cox’s Bazar district, a hilly region prone to landslides and about to enter cyclone season, have presented a unique set of challenges for aid distribution. Last month, a truck carrying relief supplies crashed into paddy field, killing nine Red Cross staff.

There is no single entry point into Bangladesh for Rohingya refugees, who have been arriving overland and by boat. Groups are spread across a huge area of land. “One of the elements is that most of the displaced people are living in hard-to-reach places and we’re just coming out of the rainy season, so logistics is quite challenging,” said Lubrano of Oxfam.

The Bangladesh army plans to move more than 800,000 Rohingya into a 3,000-acre “super-camp” currently under construction. The government has signed an agreement with Myanmar to repatriate those who have fled, but expectations are low.

“What for me is important is really raising awareness in the international community of the magnitude of this crisis,” said Lubrano. “We have no idea for how long the Rohingya refugees will be in Bangladesh. We have no idea how this response could be sustainable in the long run.”

Rohingya refugees crowd the road in Coz's Bazar waiting for food distribution. Photo by: Poppy McPherson

NGO access delayed

For years, Bangladesh has tightly controlled humanitarian access to the Rohingya, who have arrived in waves since the 1970s. They are not officially recognized as refugees, and so the agency tasked with leading the humanitarian response is the International Organization for Migration.  

Since the latest crisis began, scores of agencies have applied to the government for permission to help in the camps, but authorization has been slow to come, meaning some international NGOs have been unable to start work. Medicine and shelter supplies have been stuck in offices and staff grounded.

Dominic Bowen, response and team leader at Medical Teams International, said they had been forced to operate on verbal agreements with government, which could cause problems if staff were stopped at a checkpoint and asked to produce a permit.

“The biggest thing slowing us down is everyone is talking about, ‘Are you registered? Can you distribute?’” he said. “And that just prevents NGOs from going larger. It discourages our fundraising departments from going all-in and raising money.”

One of MTI’s partners had money and shelter for some 4,000 families but are unable to distribute it because official permission has not come through, he said. “They’re literally just sitting on their hands,” he said.

The delays have mostly affected smaller agencies, but even large NGOs were waiting for approval as recently as this week, Lubrano from Oxfam said. Oxfam was given access in early September, he added, raising funding shortages and capacity as other obstacles. “Visas to work in Bangladesh are one month and there’s a bit of turnover that doesn’t help the consistency of the response,” he said.

On Wednesday there was a meeting between the Inter Sector Coordination Group (which represents UN agencies leading the response) and Bangladesh’s NGO Affairs Bureau where the issue of authorization was raised. “The NGO Affairs Bureau has committed to speed up the approval for a number of agencies,” said Lubrano.

The bureau did not respond to a request for comment and phone calls to their office went unanswered.

“Historically, the number of registered humanitarian actors in Bangladesh has been limited,” said Wells of Amnesty. “This needs to be scaled up, given the enormity of what Bangladesh and the humanitarian community are responding to. Donor countries should also increase their support and engagement.

“Otherwise, the warning signs are there that this humanitarian crisis will continue to worsen, with a devastating impact on people who have already gone through so much; doctors were already telling me several days ago that they’re seeing a spike in serious illness.”

The specter of a cholera outbreak now looms large over the camps, where clean water supplies are scarce and many families are drinking out of muddied holes. The U.N. has shipped 900,000 cholera vaccines set to arrive next week, said Jean-Jacques Simon, UNICEF’s regional communications chief. But additional doses are needed.

“The biggest need now is definitely water and sanitation and also health care because you’ve seen over the last few days that there were many thousands of cases of diarrhea, and we are just hoping it will not transform into cholera,” he said. “That’s the biggest fear in the camps today.”

Additional reporting by Belal Uddin Joy.

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About the author

  • Me1

    Poppy McPherson

    Poppy McPherson is a journalist based in Myanmar. She has spent the past five years mainly covering Southeast Asia, most recently focusing on Myanmar and Bangladesh, for the Guardian, Guardian Cities, Buzzfeed, Foreign Policy, Time and others.