Bangladesh Copes With Chaos: Rohingya Refugees Are 'Coming And Coming'

Sep 18, 2017
Originally published on September 19, 2017 1:46 pm

A semitrailer pulls up, full of rice, water, clothes, medicine, biscuits.

Aid workers hand out the supplies to thousands of anxious, impatient and hungry refugees.

The scene is chaotic — and aid groups say that's how it has been for the past few weeks. Over 400,000 Rohingya refugees have fled government violence in Myanmar — where they are a Muslim minority — for Bangladesh. They are straining the capacity of aid agencies on the ground and of the Bangladesh government. And more refugees arrive each day.

They line up from 8 in the morning, says Raihanul Islam Mia, a local government official who is supervising the distribution. It's taking place at a site on the road from the city of Cox's Bazar in southern Bangladesh to the town of Tefnaf, near the border with Myanmar.

"More than 10,000 people I've given relief today," says Mia. He's been at it for 14 days. "They need food," he says. "And each and every day more Rohingya come from Myanmar."

When do you think they'll stop coming? I ask.

"I don't know. Know only Aung San Suu Kyi," he says. The Nobel laureate is the de facto head of Myanmar. Or maybe Myanmar's generals know, he adds – they've led the campaign against the Rohingya. "The situation seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing," said Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, in a statement.

A steady stream of refugees is walking alongside the road, their meager belongings slung over their shoulders. They're looking not just for food but for shelter.

Satara Begum has neither. She is squatting by the side of the road and looks lost as she cradles her 2-year-old daughter in her arms.

She had arrived just this morning, crossing the border from Myanmar. She fled after the military came to her village of Longdon Kwachon last week.

"Wednesday they burned our village, so we ran to another," she says, speaking in Rohingya. "But the next day they burned it, too, so we just kept going until we reached the river." Her husband and two of her children were killed along the way, she says. Now it's just the two of them.

Rain starts to fall. I ask, "Where are you going to sleep tonight?"

"We'll stay somewhere around here," she says. "I don't know where. Maybe one of the families here," she says — pointing to the makeshift camp behind her – "will take us in." She doesn't sound very convinced.

The camp where she's squatting is one of dozens that have sprouted since the exodus began. Women and children wash clothes in pools of fetid brown water.

Representatives of the International Organization for Migration, other aid agencies and the Bangladesh government are trying to make things better. Vaccinations against measles, rubella and polio are being planned — 350 shots on Sunday, 400 on Monday, says government health assistant Bibhu Gharan. And on Tuesday, he predicts 500 shots. "They're coming and coming, the refugees."

Does he think they'll stop?

"They'll not stop," he answers.

That is why health officials can't stop either. Cholera is another concern. Because of the sheer number of refugees, Bangladesh is granting access to aid groups that the groups would not have had just months ago. That's because Bangladesh is realizing that it just can't cope and that the international community needs to step in — not just for the short-term, but to find permanent homes for the refugees, too.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

More than 400,000 Muslim-minority Rohingya have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh in just the past three weeks. This huge number of people is straining the capacity of aid agencies on the ground and of the Bangladesh government, and more refugees arrive each day. Many of them are staying in camps in and around the town of Cox's Bazar. Michael Sullivan sent this report.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: On the road from Cox's Bazar in southern Bangladesh to the town of Tefnaf near the border with Myanmar, pandemonium late this afternoon as government aid workers pulled up a semi-trailer to unload supplies to thousands of anxious, impatient and hungry refugees.

RAIHANUL ISLAM MIA: Rice, water, clothes, medicine - everything, 8 to till now.

SULLIVAN: From 8:30 in the morning until now?

MIA: Until now.

SULLIVAN: And now they're getting biscuits?

MIA: Yeah, biscuits.

SULLIVAN: That's Raihanul Islam Mia, a local government official tasked with supervising the distribution at this one site.

MIA: There are more than 10,000 people I've given relief today.

SULLIVAN: How many days have you been doing this?

MIA: Fifteen days.

SULLIVAN: Is it always chaotic like this?

MIA: Always, always. They need the food. And already each and every day new Rohingya is coming from Myanmar.

SULLIVAN: When will they stop, do you think, stop coming?

MIA: I don't know. I don't know. I don't know. It knows only Aung San Suu Kyi.

SULLIVAN: Only Aung San Suu Kyi knows, he says. She's the de facto head of Myanmar. Or maybe Myanmar's generals, he added, who've led the campaign against the Rohingya. Scenes like today's were common along the road - a steady stream of refugees walking alongside it, their meager belongings slung over their shoulders, looking not just for food but shelter. Satara Begum has neither. I found her squatting by the side of the road, looking lost, her 2-year-old daughter cradled in her arms.

SATARA BEGUM: (Foreign language spoken).

SULLIVAN: She came just this morning, she says, crossing the border from Myanmar and walking the rest of the way. She fled Myanmar last week, she says, after Myanmar's military came to her village, Longdon Kwachon.

BEGUM: (Foreign language spoken).

SULLIVAN: "Wednesday they burned our village, so we ran to another," she says. "But the next day they burned it, too, so we just kept going until we reached the river." But her husband and two of her children were killed, she says, along the way. Now it's just her and her daughter.

OK, it's starting to rain. You're standing here next to the side of the road with your daughter. What are you going to do for shelter tonight?

BEGUM: (Foreign language spoken).

SULLIVAN: "We'll stay somewhere around here," she says. "I don't know where. Maybe one of the families here," she says, pointing to the makeshift camp behind her, "will take us in." She doesn't sound very convinced.

The camp she's squatting in front of is one of dozens that have sprouted since the exodus began, a wretched place where women and children wash clothes in pools of fetid brown water. About 50 yards away, the International Organization for Migration and other aid agencies and the Bangladesh government are trying to make things better. Measles, rubella and polio shots for the new arrivals - 350 shots on Sunday, says government health assistant Bibhu Gharan, 400 yesterday and tomorrow, he predicts...

BIBHU GHARAN: Five hundred. They're coming and coming, the refugee.

SULLIVAN: Do you think they'll stop coming?

GHARAN: Not stop.

SULLIVAN: Which is why health officials can't stop either. Cholera is another concern in camps like this one. And the sheer number of refugees, some aid officials say, is why they're being allowed access they wouldn't have had just months ago, Bangladesh realizing it just can't cope and hopes the international community does its part in helping the refugees not just in the short term, but in finding them permanent homes, too. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Cox's Bazar.

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