NRC anticipates "massive epidemic" in refugee camps on Bangladesh-Myanmar border


Family members of Rohingya refugees sit in front their tents at Balukhali camp, Ukhiya in Coxsbazar, Bangladesh, 20 November 2017. Photo: Abir Abdullah/EPA-EFE

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) anticipates a 'massive epidemic" among Rohingya refugees who fled into Bangladesh from Myanmar's Rakhine state in the last three months.

“The crisis facing 800,000 refugees in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazaar today is alarming, but we’re on the brink of a large-scale health catastrophe if the situation isn’t turned around,” warned Benedicte Giæver, Director of the Norwegian Refugee Council’s expert deployment roster, NORCAP. 

Giæver has just visited Kutupalong, the world’s most densely populated refugee camp in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar. The camp houses more than 600,000 refugees from Myanmar, the majority of whom fled to Cox’s Bazar after violence escalated in Myanmar’s Rakhine State in August. Along with the refugees who fled from Myanmar before August, the total number of people sheltering in the camps is over 800,000.

"A population equivalent to the country of Bhutan is squeezed together in an area of about eight square kilometres. Tents are placed dangerously tightly together, jeopardising the health of hundreds of thousands of people,” said Giæver.

The rapid growth of the camps means that toilets and water sources were quickly constructed and not spaced out, enabling any disease outbreak to spread like wildfire.

“I’ve seen sewage flowing freely through the camps. Disease outbreak is a ticking time bomb waiting to happen. Children are drinking filthy water and parents are using stagnant water to wash kids.”

“We are facing the deadly prospect of a massive cholera or diarrhoea breakout if the situation isn’t turned around. The Bangladesh government has been incredibly welcoming to people seeking safety within its borders. Local communities have also show tremendous hospitality, welcoming refugees with open arms. But we in the international aid system have failed to do enough because of the circumstances on the ground. We must step up our efforts,” warned Giæver.

NORCAP has sent 17 aid experts to various UN organisations in Cox's Bazar to respond to the emergency. Their work includes constructing latrines and clean water supplies, providing children education and helping survivors of rape and sexual violence. Several staff are responsible for preparing camps for the rainy season and planning new settlements.

"We are discussing whether to build on higher ground to accommodate everyone. Currently, the danger of mudslides is too high for it to be done. But we must work before the monsoon rains arrive next May. It's difficult to know how long the crisis will last and how many more people will arrive. People still cross the border every day, the total number vary from day to day,” said Giæver.

NORCAP’s director is also concerned about the children affected by the crisis. Many have lost their parents and other family members. Around 6,000 children have to take care of younger siblings. "It's difficult to see so many orphans. People here feel powerless. This is a population that feel marginalized in Myanmar, and now they live in horrific conditions."

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