Rohingya crisis: Inside the world’s largest refugee camp

John is in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, currently home to almost one million people who have fled violence in neighbouring Myanmar. Here he blogs about how the Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) team he is part of are working together to meet the needs of ordinary people caught up in a desperate situation.

I sit at my computer in the finance office, ready for another day. Sitting here, I am five kilometres away from what is now the largest refugee camp in the world.

The area has seen an influx of some 700,000 people since August of last year, making a total of almost one million people who now live in this collection of overcrowded refugee camps.

I work here as a Finance Manager for MSF. I manage a team who allow us to meet the financial obligations and challenges that this humanitarian disaster poses. At the same time, we must remain compliant within both the Bangladesh financial structures and the obligations set forth by our generous donors. The primary role of our finance team is to support our medical  and water and sanitation teams, who provide lifesaving and preventative treatment to the refugee population within the camps.

Life in Cox’s Bazar

We hear the words “Rohingya”, “refugees” and various other terms, but let’s not forget – these are people, just like you and I. Although they are from different cultures and backgrounds, they still wish to live in their own home, eat nice food, drink clean water, access education for themselves and their children, socialise with family and friends, and experience all the many other intimacies and intricacies of normal everyday life.

Rohingya crisis - Majida and her family arrive in Bangladesh

Majida arrived in Bangladesh with her husband and three small children, the youngest just two months old. Photo: Sara Creta/MSF

A lot of credit must go to the people of Bangladesh: without their understanding, generosity, compassion and work ethic these people would be left in a more perilous situation.

This dramatic population increase in this part of Bangladesh, however, places further strain on the already stretched resources of a country with a population of 170 million people, who fit into an area not even twice the size of Ireland.

There must be a better way

The land of rolling hills provided to the refugees however is of a poor quality. As the refugees do not have any legal status in Bangladesh they cannot work and they cannot leave the camps to try to eke out a better life for themselves and their families elsewhere within Bangladesh.

This area is also susceptible to seasonal flooding and devastating cyclones, making it difficult to sustain life and promote well-being. The result is that this already vulnerable population is entirely reliant on aid.

There just has to be a better way.

There has to be a way of improving the livelihoods and improving the prospects of a population who are not wanted in their country of birth. We hope for an urgent resolution from the powers that be to resolve the plight suffered by our Rohingya brothers and sisters.

 What we do

MSF employs some 2,000 staff from throughout Bangladesh: intuitive medical practitioners, skilled construction staff, dedicated drivers, meticulous cleaners and administrative staff. All work together to allow our patients from the refugee camp and the host community to receive the best possible medical treatment and to promote their recovery.

Most of our staff are based in villages and towns close to the refugee camps. Some have left their families and friends behind in Dhaka or other cities in order to work to help the refugees, but many are from this area, and have been moved by the dramatic changes they see around them to get involved.

Within the camps we have dug and developed over 250 bore holes to provide clean, safe drinking water, and built hundreds of latrines to improve sanitation.

Rohingya crisis - A new water pump in Kutupalong-Balukhali refugee camp

A newly installed water pump brings clean, safe drinking water to Rohingya refugees in Kutupalong-Balukhali. Photo: Dean Irvine/MSF

Although the soft, sandy soil and lack of roads makes it difficult to construct robust facilities and even carry tools and equipment, we have built hospitals and health clinics within the confines of the camp.

Pride and determination

Another challenge is to staff these facilities with the most skilled staff we can find. Working six days a week in the searing heat can be overwhelming for anyone, but working in a high intensity environment like the refugee camp only adds to the challenges.

We are very lucky to have such strong and resilient staff who work their hardest to support and show solidarity with the refugees.

We have built a water and sanitation infrastructure that will aim to prevent or minimise many of the common illness associated with people living in densely populated areas; dehydration, acute watery diarrhea, typhoid, Dengue and a plethora of others.

We have built a workforce which is proud and determined to serve the needs of the refugee community.

Rising to the challenge

Our greatest achievement so far is that we have built a health care system from scratch which is relied upon and trusted by the host and refugee community, where they can receive quality health care and aftercare in a safe and confidential environment.

Our next challenge will be to maintain that high level of service while retaining the services of our talented staff, but we are up for it.

If you live in the UK, please donate to MSF UK’s winter 2018 appeal to support our work with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

If you live elsewhere in the world, please click here to make a donation.