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Whitegate's Marie Madden in the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of her work for Concern.

A Race Against Time For Rohingyas

WHITEGATE native Marie Madden joined Concern Worldwide as their communications officer last October and has spoken to The Clare Champion about her experience working for the NGO, particularly in dealing with the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh.

CONCERN have recently launched the Bangladesh Monsoon Appeal as nearly one million Rohingya people face further catastrophe at the makeshift refugee camp they are currently occupying in the coastal region of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.

Marie Madden, from Whitegate, has just returned from a two week trip to Cox’s Bazar where she has seen first hand the conditions these people, primarily made up of women and children, have been living in. She explains how these people have already been through so much pain and suffering and now stand to lose the makeshift homes they have made in monsoon rains.

She explained that the Rohingyas are an ethnic minority based in Myanmar, and despite having been there for generations they don’t have citizenship and are being persecuted. Those living in Myanmar don’t have access to any services such as education and health services.

“They have been victimised pretty much their entire life and there has been sporadic violence over the last decade or so. Up to August smaller groups of Rohingya have been fleeing to Bangladesh and up until then there was about 200,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh. There was a huge outbreak of violence by the military in August/September and since that an additional 700,000 have fled to Bangladesh. At the moment we estimate there are 905,000 in the Cox’s Bazar area of Bangladesh, which is on the coast,” Marie said.

Marie has been to other countries where people have faced similar issues, earlier this year she was in the Democratic Republic of Congo but she said even that experience did not prepare her for this latest trip. “I had heard a lot about how precarious the situation was before arriving in Bangladesh but it was shocking to see it for myself. I travelled to the Democratic Republic of Congo in April and met some people who were in a similar situation in the sense that they had to flee because of conflict but I’ve never seen anything on the scale of the Rohingya camps,” she said.

Marie outlined that what is so unusual about the camp is that Cox’s Bazar is a tourist area where a lot of Bangladeshi people go on holidays. “It is on Kolatoli Beach which is really scenic, so it’s a nice spot of the country but within 45 minutes now you have this huge spontaneous refugee camp with nearly a million people in it that has just shot up in the space of eight months”.
Refugee camps are often planned by aid organisations but the difference in Bangladesh is that this was not planned out in anyway and it has just become an area where “literally hoards of people” are lodging themselves. “We launched an emergency appeal in Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh in response to this huge influx of people”.

Building bamboo structures in Cox’s Bazar for the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees.

Over the last eight months aid organisations have moved in and the Government and army have been working to put order on the camp and put better structures in place for people to live in. “Everyone there is living in these small structures made out of slats of bamboo with plastic thrown over it. The army are helping to reinforce them but they are still really flimsy. The initial places where people settled were not planned and that’s why the monsoon threat is so terrifying at the moment,” Marie explained.

The area has little vegetation and the hovel type structures are sitting on what is effectively just sand. The difficulty now is that monsoon rains have threatened the camp. “It’s a race against time now to try and minimise the human cost of the rains. The Rohingya people have been through so much already, it’s unthinkable that more devastation could be around the corner,” Marie explained.

Marie outlined that the Rohingya’s have gone through “horrific violence” before arriving in Bangladesh and explained that because many of the murders and violence were directed at men, the camps are made up of primarily women and children. Currently Concern’s primary focus is on nutrition and it runs eight outpatient therapeutic clinics.

“We focus on severely malnourished children, we screen them and we either treat them or refer them onto hospitals if things are particularly bad. There was a lot of gender based violence [in Myanmar] so they are very vulnerable. A lot of them were walking for up to two weeks to cross the border in very dangerous conditions to try to get to where they are now”.
Marie said from a personal perspective, it’s definitely been the toughest environment that she has ever worked in.

“Many of the Rohingya people that I spoke to had seen their family members killed brutally in front of them, had suffered sexual violence and are now struggling to feed themselves and their family. One woman visited our Outpatient Therapeutic Programme while I was there with a small child, who was clearly very malnourished and ill. It turned out that his mother, the women’s sister, had died during childbirth and she was struggling to raise him alongside her own five children in the camp. His arms were so thin and fragile and he could barely stay awake. I have a four-year-old niece myself who is a bundle of energy so it was just heartbreaking to see the conditions that these children are living in,” she said.

Having talked to the women about their experiences Marie said many are saying rapes were being used as a tool. A lot of the migrants have lost their husbands, parents, and witnessed very brutal violence in their villages. “Many have had their houses burned down and were forced to flee with just the clothes on their back, and many had to leave elderly or sick relatives behind who weren’t able to travel with them, which was very difficult,” Marie said.

She recalled meeting one young girl who arrived to the camp a couple of months pregnant and delivered her baby in the camp. “Her husband was either killed or separated from her in the violence and she not been reunited with him so she is on her own now. She has some extended family there but everyone is worried about the relations that were left behind,” Marie said.
What Concern is hearing is that there were military forces were turning up in villages setting houses on fire and shooting people in front of their loved ones. Marie said these people had no option but to flee.

“Anyone who was mobile and physically capable of leaving, fled and if they had relations they could carry they would flee and try to carry them. People who had money could pay for transport but anyone else were walking for 10 to 15 days. A lot were taking very unsafe passage over the Naff river. A couple of women told me their boat capsized, so they almost died and they had to recover from that and then keep going and try to see if they could get to Bangladesh because they had no other option. For the likes of me it is impossible how you would cope with that. Another man told me how his house was set on fire and his wife died in the fire. He is in the camp with five children and a grandchild, and he is trying to bring them up by himself. His house is in the Kutupalong Extension which is one of the most vulnerable areas of the Rohingya camp and he is worried about moving because he has been through so much and they’ve just started to settle into life again. They are an incredibly resilient people and they are doing their best to make a home for themselves for now in the camp but the monsoon is threatening any progress that has been made now and it could be catastrophic”.

Marie added that many have mental health issues having been traumatised by what they have witnessed. “Your heart really goes out to them. It is just impossible to overstate the trauma that they have gone through whether its women who have been subjected to gender based violence, or people who have lost their loved ones and literally seen them being killed in front of them and then having to flee to an unknown country with nothing and start over and not only worry about themselves but worry about how they will feed their children or what the future holds for them. They don’t have access to food or to healthcare and with the monsoon rains access is becoming a problem as roads are being cut off due to the floods”.

She said the worry is there will be landslides and a lot of these houses will be swept away. Disease will be another major concern. “Sanitation is very poor, as you can imagine with a million people in one place. There are latrines but there is no proper drainage or sanitation so if the rains take hold then there are very real concerns about the spread of disease. There have been deaths already with reports of anywhere from three to 12 deaths from the monsoon in the camp. As the rain intensifies the worse it will get. All of the NGOs are scrambling to help people reinforce their tents and try to move people if they are in low lying areas”.

Marie speaking with Rohingyas in their make shift home in the refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar

What is so heartbreaking Marie said is the amount of children running around in the heat, which this month hit 40 degrees with 85% humidity. “They are beautiful innocent children and the road ahead is just so uncertain for them. They don’t have fans or water and in a lot of cases they are not well, and they have no room to move around [in the hovels]. You could have an entire family of eight or nine in one room. It’s like a sauna you can’t imagine how people are surviving in it. You would be in there for an hour and you would be feeling faint, it’s really really tough,” Marie continued.

She said it is very difficult to see how the situation can improve as the funding required to deal with this type of a crisis is “massive”. “At the moment NGOs are running out of money and they can only work with what they have so that is a challenge that’s there too. At the moment we are working on nutrition but we are hoping to scale up our response and that will include sanitation, hygiene and shelter so the more funding that comes in the more we will be able to help people prepare for this monsoon”.

The camp is relying on overseas aid to survive. Many offer labour and services inside the camp and trade this work for food and a bartering system has developed so there is an internal economy in the camp. “What really stood out to me is a lot of them really want to return to Myanmar, it’s home, it is a human instinct because you want to be around your familiar area, and the people you know and your land, but they are just so scared and they can’t go back until they get citizenship, they are not comfortable going back. We’ve heard reports that violence is still ongoing in Myanmar even though it is supposed to have ceased at this stage. It’s very tough to sit opposite someone and they tell you stories like that and not be able to offer any reassurance because the road and future is just so uncertain for them. Even though aid organisations are doing everything they can the scale of the crisis is proving to be a really tough challenge,” Marie added.

The government in Bangladesh is trying to deal with the situation but it is incredibly difficult with such a huge influx of people. “It already has a huge population and they don’t have the resources to sustain this Rohingya population. They have been hugely supportive and facilitated the camps and are working with the aid organisations but from their point of view this has to be a short term measure, they can’t sustain them long term, so the Rohingya’s are caught between a rock and a hard place. Aid organisations are going to struggle to keep up the scale of the response in the long term but they can’t go home because they don’t have citizenship and it is a dangerous place to be,” Marie outlined.

*To contribute to the Bangladesh Concern Appeal or to find out more call 1850 410 510.

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