Inside the Most Urgent Refugee Crisis in the World 

Tens of thousands of Muslims who escaped Myanmar are living in hellish conditions despite fervent efforts by a small army of international aid workers to provide relief.

By Shahirah Majumdar; photos by Joshua Paul

Rohingya refugees reach out for food on Teknaf Highway in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Monday, Sept. 18, 2017.

As night settled over southeast Bangladesh, where fragile shelters of black tarp and bamboo rose cheek by jowl on narrow terraces hacked from a once verdant hill outside the city of Cox's Bazar, the pain of the people living there was inescapable. Crammed ten or 12 into one- or two-room tents, the roughly 24,000 refugees had no electricity, little clean water, and few latrines. Defecating in open fields had been their only option for weeks. Fevers and diarrheal diseases were rampant. Without livelihoods, they were reduced to long days and evenings full of waiting for news of missing relatives or much-needed aid.

Such is life in Jamtoli, one of the dozens of tent cities that mushroomed into existence to house roughly half a million displaced Rohingya taking refuge in Bangladesh since systemic violence drove them from their homes in Myanmar. Called "makeshift settlements" by the Bangladesh government, these unplanned sites are new neighbors to two official UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) refugee camps, established in the 1990s, which were already bursting to capacity. The Rohingya—a Muslim minority who made up just 4 percent of Myanmar's population—have been seeking sanctuary in Bangladesh since they were stripped of Burmese citizenship in the 70s and 80s by a military government focused on establishing racial and religious purity. In the interim, "protracted statelessness and profound discrimination have made the [Rohingya] Muslim community particularly vulnerable to human rights violations," according to a final report on the situation by a UN fact-finding commission led by Kofi Annan. 

When Rohingya militants launched attacks on police posts in the early morning hours of August 25, a new wave of anti-Muslim brutality was unleashed in response, one that has some international observers using the word "genocide." Indeed, at a press briefing Sunday not far from Jamtoli, the UN high commissioner of refugees dubbed the mass Rohingya influx "the most urgent refugee crisis in the world." The UN Security Council was scheduled to meet Thursday for a full briefing on the situation, but any action was likely to be stymied by China, which remains friendly with the same Burmese government that denies the violence is even taking place.

With no diplomatic solution in sight, the global humanitarian community—UN agencies plus a deep bench of local and international NGOs—has swooped into the scenic seaside resort town Cox's Bazar to provide emergency support. 

"These are people who fled violence with virtually nothing but the clothes on their backs," Yante Ismail, a UNHCR officer, told me. "In this emergency period, they will have to rely on the government and humanitarian agencies for support in almost every aspect of their lives."

The sun sets over Jamtoli, one of dozens of unofficial "makeshift settlements" in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Sunday, September 24, 2017. 

Basic needs include food, water, sanitation, shelter, and medical supplies. And with the extreme violence witnessed by this community, psychosocial counseling services are vital too, even if they're much trickier to scale up. Ismail said the UNHCR has appealed for $30 million to fund "operations in the immediate future." The International Organization for Migration has issued a flash appeal for $26 million, and UNICEF has asked for $7.3 million. The Bangladeshi government, for its part, has allocated more than 500 tons of food, while local and international organizations have sent at least 270 tons of their own, with more en routeEmergency supplies of water purifying tablets, sanitary "dignity" kits, and family hygiene bundles have also begun to arrive.

But the prevailing fear was that given the pace and scale of the catastrophe, even the abundant resources being deployed might soon be outstripped by raw need.

Many of the refugees I saw this this past weekend were sickly, especially the elderly and the very young. UNICEF estimated that about 60 percent of new arrivals were children, and that between 3,000 and 4,000 were severely and acutely malnourished. Many were newborns who came into this world either in the no-man's land between Myanmar and Bangladesh, or else after their mothers crossed the border.

"Five to six percent of the population will die in the next six months," Shakeb Nabi, the country director of Christian Aid, a UK-based international NGO working on the relief effort, told me. "The majority of the babies will die."

Nabi's frank assessment followed a site visit to Jamtoli, where his organization was in talks to assume camp management and deliver food aid, contingent on official approval from Bangladesh's NGO bureau. Nabi and his team spent the day visiting refugee homes, and interviewing men, women, and children to assess "the needs and aspirations of the community." They talked to a funeral procession carrying the body of a 75-year-old Rohingya woman who, they were told, could not recover from the shock of the violence that had forced her family from their village. They held the hands of desperate mothers who entreated them to save babies burning with fever.

As Nabi observed a UNICEF-led measles, rubella, and polio vaccination drive underway in a nearby tent, he noted that none of the children cried or flinched.

"They are in shock," he said. "That's not how a child should act when they receive an injection."

A Rohingya woman, center, cradles her young child as she waits for food aid in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Wednesday, September 20, 2017.

A veteran relief worker from India, since 2001, Nabi said, he's been on at least 15 emergency relief efforts, all but this one in response to natural disasters such as earthquakes or floods. He added that the Rohingya response is different because of the scale, the global politics involved, and the man-made nature of the crisis. Since arriving in Cox's Bazar two days earlier, he had gone from meeting to meeting, settlement to settlement, his phone never far from his ear. Each night, I saw him and his team members sitting up in their hotel lobby cum makeshift office until 2 or 3 AM in strategic discussions with government ministries and aid agencies, fueled by coffee, tea, cigarettes, and zeal.

This is the back-end of humanitarian relief work, staged in hotels and restaurants and meeting rooms. On the front end, aid is deployed on site, in the camps and makeshift settlements. 

"We have a clear mechanism for assessment," explained Joseph Dulon Gomes, 14-year veteran of relief work and senior member of the Christian Aid team. "{Aid} agencies go to the field, interview, survey, produce reports, and compile information." These reports are presented in Inter-Sectoral Coordination Group meetings, and inform the decisions that often determine refugees' lives.

The contrast between the relief effort and the existence of the people leading it was striking. The Cox's Bazar hospitality industry seemed to booming: Hotels bustled with NGO workers and journalists; car-service prices were up 50 percent; English-speaking locals were being snapped up as fixers, translators, and guides. In the evenings, when relief workers returned from the camps, they reported mixed feelings about their access to hot showers, hot meals, and the comfort of cafes and bars.

Rohingya men carry the coffin of a 75-year-old woman to a burial ground on a hill outside Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Saturday, September 23, 2017.

"It's surreal to come back from the refugee camps to a honeymooner's holiday town," observed Ayeasia Macintyre, an operations coordinator for the international charity Shelterbox who'd arrived in Cox's Bazar for a quick two-day needs assessment. 

In sprawling settlements like Jamtoli, life consists of hunger, illness, squalor, exposure to the elements, and what Nabi called "limitless insecurity." Gomes, for his part, told me he couldn't sleep at night—when he closed his eyes, scenes of desperation unspool in his head. "It's difficult to absorb the situation," he said. 

But Nabi, Gomes's boss, was emphatic that to be effective in this line of work, passion is essential—but emotion needs to be checked at the door.

"The moment emotion creeps in, there is likelihood you will get into drama or PTSD," he told me. "And then you will need psychosocial counseling. If any of my team members breaks down, it will be a big loss, because they have expertise that can't easily be replaced. Leading from the front is very very crucial."

Burnout is only one of the dangers faced by relief workers assisting the Rohingya. Workers trying to reach internally displaced Rohingyas near the Burmese city of Sittwe have been hampered by armed Buddhist mobs. Before the August attacks that helped set off this crisis, Reuters reported on a "precautionary security notification," warning UN and international NGO workers in Myanmar's Rakhine state that they might be targeted for violence. And multiple aid workers in the region told me stories of missing colleagues, incidents that had not been made public for fear of further inflaming local sensitivities.

Rohingya silhouetted against the setting sun at the Kutupalong camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Monday, September 25, 2017.

Meanwhile, the discovery of a mass grave on Monday—which Myanmar security forces said belonged to Hindu villagers rounded up and shot by Rohingya militants—conjured the specter of further violence and retaliation. The grave report could not be independently verified (the Rakhine region is closed to outside observers and journalists), and Burmese officials have been known to disseminate misinformation. But the report was likely to fuel the toxic idea that the Rohingya represent an existential threat to Myanmar's racial and religious harmony.

In this climate of violence and hostility, relief efforts are largely focused on immediate survival. There is still some hope is that the Rohingya will be able to return to Myanmar eventually, with a "safe zone" proposed as a guard against future attacks. In the meantime, the Bangladesh government is not exactly jumping at the opportunity to grant the Rohingya citizenship, and have restricted them from leaving the camps. Joseph Tripura, a UNHCR spokesman, told me in an email that that the Bangladesh government has maintained "a strict 'no resettlement' policy for Rohingyas since 2010." That means they cannot start new lives in third countries like the US, either. Under the Trump administration's planned (further) tightening of refugee quotas, it is unlikely they would be welcomed anyway. Instead, they are poised to remain stuck here, stateless and dependent on the generosity of Bangladeshis and international agencies for their lives.

At Jamtoli settlement, Umme Khadiza, the head of Christian Aid's Rohingya relief team and one of the only women in a leadership position on the ground, surveyed the squalid tents flanked by mud and garbage where green fields and trees had once stood.

"Speaking as a Bangladeshi and a human being, when I see how these people are suffering, especially the children, I feel bad," she told me. "On the other hand, this is the most beautiful part of my country, and the people of my country are suffering—and I feel bad about that too. It's human nature; you can have both feelings at the same time."

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