Rohingya refugee crisis: the children’s emergency
Cox’s Bazar, September 20, 2017.
Just under a month ago desperate refugees from the Myanmar state of Rakhine started surging across the border into neighbouring Bangladesh. They arrived in droves – fleeing extreme violence, and deeply traumatised.
The population of these Rohingya refugees now living in Bangladesh – one of Asia’s poorest nations – has doubled in these few weeks from around 400,000 to more than 800,000.
The result are scenes impossible to fathom from the comfort of a living room in New Zealand. It’s even impossible to fathom when right in the midst of it. The scale of human suffering is more immense than words can describe. And well over half of all the newly arrived refugees here are children. Children and their despairing parents. Hearing what they have suffered and continue to suffer, compels me to plead with the world to pay attention to this crisis, and make sure these children are not forgotten.
18-month-old Shahida is one of them. When we met her mother, Shamseda, and her father, Ayob, they’d been awake for 24 hours. They’d not eaten – they were famished and utterly exhausted.
A few days earlier they’d made their temporary home on a patch of swampland separated from the main road to Kutapalong Refugee camp, by a dangerous river. Rohingya refugees, desperate to find a place to sleep, had built a perilous bamboo bridge over this fast moving river and were crossing it several times a day in search of urgently needed aid.But overnight torrential rain had come and not let up. “In the middle of the night it flooded and we couldn’t go anywhere. We stood up all night and held our daughter up above us,” said Ayob.
In less than a month thousands of families like Shahida’s had put up bamboo and plastic-sheeted shelters on this small patch of land in a temporary settlement known as Rubber Garden. We’d visited two days earlier and met a family who had not had a single thing to eat for a whole day – Nuramkis, her sister in law, their three children under three, and her 72-year-old father. Nuramkis was most concerned about her children.
As a mother myself it’s impossible to put yourself into the shoes of another mother who hasn’t had the means to do something as essential as to give her beloved children something to eat. But now there is an even greater sense of desperation at Rubber Garden, caused by the cruel and relentless monsoon rain.
“I stood all night because of the rain,” Toyab, the father of 18-month-old Sanjida tells me. “We made an elevated area to stand on by bringing soil over in the pitch darkness. The water kept rising above our knees. We couldn’t sleep the whole night. We were standing with our baby.”
“As the water came up I was very frightened,” Sanjida’s mother Ranabegun tells me. “We tied our baby to my husband with a piece of cloth. The whole night I cried.” Now these two families and thousands of others like them have to find somewhere new to sleep. But for now they wait in what can only be described as abject misery, by the side of an extremely busy road.
Children are so close to the edge of the road that a number have been injured by passing cars and trucks carrying supplies from well-meaning Bangladeshis who are trying to help. But throwing clothes out of car windows is not what these 421,000 newly arrived refugees need most right now, including the 240,000 children among them. Almost 1200 of these children crossed the border alone, without even a parent or a guardian.
What they need most is food, clean water, somewhere safe to take refuge from the rain, medicine, and to be protected from people like child traffickers. They need this now. Immediately – to prevent this children’s emergency becoming a crisis within a crisis.
To help them, aid agencies like UNICEF are working around the clock. But we are running out of supplies and donations from the international community have been slow to come in. The world is facing so many crises now, it’s hard to know who to help.
Together with the Bangladeshi government and our partners on the ground UNICEF is rushing to vaccinate 150,000 desperate children from highly infectious diseases like measles, rubella and polio. We are giving them and their parents clean drinking water, essentials like soap, washing powder, water jugs, and for the children, we are setting up child friendly spaces with basic toys, where children can play and be safe.
We also need to give these children who have suffered so much, hope. Hope to dream that the days, months and years ahead, will be better than all the trauma and hardship that they’ve so far experienced in their short lives.
UNICEF is currently responding to the needs of tens of thousands of Rohingya children in Bangladesh. To support UNICEF’s work for children affected by crises around the world, please donate at unicef.org.nz/greatest-need