Nearly one-quarter million Rohingya children have fled to the relative safety of Bangladesh in the last month, but they are sheltering amid precarious conditions and some are alone, according to the U.N. and NGOs focusing relief efforts on an unprecedented wave of refugees from Myanmar.
A UNICEF cargo plane carrying 100 tons of supplies including water purifying tablets, hygiene kits and sanitary materials, arrived in Dhaka from Copenhagen on Sunday. The supplies were to be transported by truck to southeastern Cox’ Bazar district to provide aid to the 429,000 refugees who have crossed into Bangladesh since Aug. 25 to escape violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
The U.N. agency estimates that six of every 10 refugees who fled Rakhine’s latest cycle of violence are children.
“Ensuring that children and families have safe water for drinking and washing is absolutely essential in order to protect them against diarrhea and other waterborne diseases,” said Edouard Beigbeder, UNICEF representative in Bangladesh. “This is a very real threat given the current situation in the camps and makeshift settlements where the Rohingya are now living, especially amid the current heavy rains.”
In Teknaf last week, a 6-year-old girl told a BenarNews reporter that she hoped to be able to eat.
“I haven’t had any meals in the last four to five days so I am waiting beside the street to get some food,” she said, adding her mother was elsewhere, begging for food.
A 9-year-old boy echoed her plight. “I am from Gojobil in Myanmar. I haven’t had a meal in the last four days, after crossing the border to escape from the torture in Rakhine,” he told BenarNews.
Save the Children estimated that as many as 1 million Rohingya, including 600,000 children, could arrive in Bangladesh by year’s end even though reports showed that the influx of refugees had slowed in recent days.
“Beneath the hardship and suffering faced by the Rohingya who’ve arrived in Bangladesh, there is a child protection crisis on our doorstep. We’re seeing numbers of children arriving alone and in desperate need of help,” said Mark Pierce, the director of Save the Children in Bangladesh.
Exposed to criminal exploitation
Even as aid trickles into refugee camps, rights activists expressed concern that many Rohingya women and children could be exploited by human traffickers and others.
“This is a real concern as these children are in an especially vulnerable position, being at increased risk of exploitation and abuse, as well as things like child trafficking,” Pierce said in a statement.
Those risks are real, said Afrozul Haque Tutul, an additional superintendent of police in Cox’s Bazar. He said a group of criminals had been actively trying to exploit Rohingya.
“I just caught a person who was trying to traffic a Rohingya girl. The man has a Bangladeshi national identity card. He hails from Teknaf. We are examining whether his national identity card is genuine,” Tutul told BenarNews.
Since Aug. 25, police had arrested more than 200 “brokers” who were trying to exploit Rohingya, he said. The suspects were involved in different types of criminal activities, including human trafficking.
Salma Ali, chief of the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association, said she witnessed gangs and human traffickers “catching unattended children and young girls” at the Shahporirdwip entry point along the Myanmar border two days ago.
“I saw no checking, no obstruction either from the Border Guard Bangladesh or the police,” she told BenarNews.
“I saw three women crying at Shahporirdwip. As I asked, they informed me that the human trafficker took away three young Rohingya girls as they got on board the fishing boat to cross into Bangladesh,” she said.
“These women and children will be trafficked to India, Pakistan and beyond for sexual servitude and slavery, no doubt,” Ali added.
Large number pregnant, breastfeeding
Pregnant women face a different set of hardships. More than 15,000 pregnant Rohingya women were among the new refugee arrivals in Bangladesh, and the government has faced the challenge of ensuring that they receive proper reproductive health services, State Minister for Health and Family Welfare Zahid Malik told BenarNews.
“Women do not stop getting pregnant or having babies just because an emergency hits,” said Iori Kato, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) activing representative in Bangladesh.
Earlier this month UNFPA announced that it had deployed dozens of midwives, many with special training in humanitarian response, to Cox’s Bazar to support health personnel already there.
Thirteen percent of the newly arrived women were pregnant or breastfeeding, UNFPA said in a news release.
“The women who are coming for check-ups all have a terrified and exhausted look,” Sumaya, a UNFPA-supported midwife posted at the Nayapara refugee camp, said. “We keep hearing stories from them of walking through jungles and across hills for days without food, their children carried over their shoulders. They’ve lost their homes.”
Aid arriving, more needed
In Dhaka on Monday, Filippo Grandi, the U.N.’s high commissioner for refugees, held a news conference on the humanitarian situation in southeastern Bangladesh, where he briefed reporters about his visit to refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.
“The people I met were deeply traumatized, and despite having found refuge in Bangladesh, they are still exposed to enormous hardship,” Grand said.
“Despite every effort by those on the ground, the massive influx of people seeking safety rapidly outpaced capacities to respond, and the situation has still not stabilized. More is needed, and fast, if we are to avoid further deterioration,” he added.
Also on Monday, India brought in about 900 tons of relief materials aboard the ship INS Gharial. The food, clothing and basic medical supplies were to be delivered to the port in Chittagong on Thursday.
“India’s relief to Rohingyas would not only ease the financial burden on Bangladesh struggling to maintain the Rohingya refugees but would also earn sympathy among the Rohingya Muslims. It’s a win-win situation,” Dushyant Nagar, a political analyst, told BenarNews.
UNICEF, meanwhile, announced that it was seeking U.S. $7.3 million in funding to provide aid in southeastern Bangladesh over the next three months. Officials expect that figure to grow as the refugee population increases.
The United States plans to provide nearly $32 million in new humanitarian aid to Rohingya refugees, bringing the total commitment to nearly $95 million in this fiscal year, the U.S. State Department announced last week.
Akash Vashishtha in New Delhi contributed to this report.