My name is Paul Conneally and I am a Global Advisor on Community Engagement and Accountability for the International Committee of the Red Cross. I am writing to you from Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. In the past three months, an estimated 646,000 people who are fleeing violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State have arrived across the border into Bangladesh, triggering one of the largest and most complex humanitarian crises in the region in decades. And people are still arriving.
The situation on the ground is on a scale rarely seen in a humanitarian crisis. The sheer number of people is daunting. One of the most striking aspects of camp life for me when I first visited was the enormous numbers of young children. The average family size is reportedly seven-to-eight children and I have been told that approximately 60% of camp residents are children under 15. This population movement is exacerbated by the fact there is an already-existing population of displaced people from Rakhine numbering approximately 210,000 from earlier violence dating back to the early nineties and most recently in 2012. This means that the government of Bangladesh, supported by national and international humanitarian organizations, including the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society and its partners from the International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, are working to meet the needs of almost a million people. The Bangladeshi government has done an admirable job in quickly setting up a ‘camp structure’ for almost 700,000 people and the people themselves have worked hard to build temporary shelters and organize themselves in a way that makes interactions with the humanitarian community easier. There are also thousands of people who are still stranded in border areas, waiting to be relocated to the camps.
People are desperately in need of food assistance, clean water, sanitation, reliable health services and good information about how to access assistance. Many of the people I speak to state that emergency food parcels and financial assistance as their number one request. 433,000 people have been reached by Bangladesh Red Crescent and other Red Cross and Red Crescent partners with emergency supplies like food, jerry cans, tarpaulins, ropes and toiletries.
For the Red Cross in Cox’s Bazar we are seeing a big demand also for our Restoring Family Links service which seeks to trace family members separated due to the violence and to trace relatives detained in Myanmar and reconnect them with their families displaced in Myanmar through the intermediation of the ICRC.
I was also in Rakhine State in November. The situation there is extremely difficult, especially for those members of the Muslim population still remaining in northern Rakhine, numbering approximately 180,000. The Red Cross plans to reach all of these people by the end of 2017. The Red Cross alone has access though we are regularly advocating with the authorities to allow other agencies to work in the area also as the needs are significant. Much of the country side is depopulated, not surprising given the large numbers displaced to Bangladesh, and those that remain can be difficult to access, not just because of difficult terrain in a remote region but because of enormous levels of fear and trauma that permeate right across the community. Much of the work here is also with the surrounding ethnic Rakhine Buddhist communities with whom it is important to engage and retain their support and understanding for the work that we are doing in terms of both humanitarian assistance and the ongoing monitoring of the humanitarian situation.
Working in contexts like Myanmar and Bangladesh is a rare opportunity and it is a privilege to contribute to efforts to reduce suffering in situations of real distress. I am continuously inspired and humbled by the resilience of communities going through unimaginable hardships. Their ability to sustain themselves and their families despite the terrible odds against them is a humbling lesson. People’s resilience and ingenuity is also incredibly inspiring to witness. The way the camps are built and self-organized under such circumstances is truly impressive.
The strain on their resources and those of the surrounding communities is not to be underestimated and they are in need of our continued support and understanding. Bangladesh is hosting approximately one million people displaced from violence in Myanmar and is doing it very well given the sudden circumstances. But of course this is not sustainable and a political solution will be the only solution that will make a difference.