DEC appeal: What is it like in refugee camps right now?

A young girl holds her baby sister at a refugee camp in Ukhiya, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

CARE’s Zia Choudhury describes the situation on the ground in refugee camps in Bangladesh – and why the DEC emergency appeal is so important for helping the hundreds of thousands of people in desperate need.

What is the latest on the situation in the refugee camps?

In the last six weeks alone we’ve had almost 450,000 people crossing over the border. They’ve arrived in a very, very poor condition and are living in extremely densely packed sites.

Working with refugees over the past 20 years, this is amongst the most critical situations I’ve ever seen.

And the noticeable thing to me is that there are so many thousands and thousands of women and children. At a guess I’d say more than 65% are women and children and they’re really struggling. These are very poor conditions.

Women walking down muddy path in refugee camp
Heavy rains have reduced the pathways in the crowded camps to seas of mud

What do you know about the journeys people have taken to flee from Myanmar?

I believe the journeys have been absolutely horrific. I’ve spoken personally to many families. And one story particularly struck me: a woman – who was already eight months pregnant – told me she set off with her two kids and trekked for days barefoot through forests and jungles.

There are many stories like this of heavily pregnant, very sick or elderly people, and lots of people carrying young babies. It’s really, really unbelievable.

And once they get to the border, what are conditions like there?

Once they get to the camps, at least they’re in a safe place where they do have access to aid resources. The sites are currently extremely densely packed though. The country is already one of the most densely populated in the world. And it is a very poor country. But, having said that, it’s been really heart-warming to see how local communities, local government and civil society organisations have banded together to support the Rohingya people who have come over.

The amazing thing too is that people themselves are picking themselves up and trying their very best. They’ve had to sell everything to buy a small bit of plastic and a few sticks of wood to make a little shelter. We have a lot of people who have very, very little.

Young man carrying bamboo poles
A young man carrying bamboo poles to make temporary shelters

CARE and other DEC member agencies are on the ground providing services so that these people, after their long and hazardous and traumatic journey, at least they can now get a little bit of food and shelter. But we have to do a lot more.

In the scale of things this is a great number of people needing a great number of services, and we can provide that.

DEC appeals only happen in extreme circumstances, what more is needed to tackle this?

The first thing the DEC tries to do is to provide food and shelter and medical care to the most vulnerable. We’re talking about almost half a million people here not getting the services they need to live in dignity.

What we need is money because everything is available in this country to purchase. We then need to go out and deliver.

We’ve started, we just need to do much much more. That’s why this appeal is so important. We really can save lives. And help these women and girls in particular live in dignity.

People outside temporary shelters at refugee camp
People outside the temporary shelters they have built on a muddy hillside

Is aid actually getting through to these people?

Yes, right now in the refugee camps, aid is getting through. CARE, along with other members of the DEC, has been able to provide services for the last few weeks.

It’s been incredibly difficult, there’s so much chaos there. But we’re on the ground now delivering services to people who really need them.

Is enough aid getting through to these refugee camps?

No, there’s not enough aid getting through at the moment. The different DEC agencies have been able to establish themselves so we’re there on the ground and we’ve started providing services. At the beginning it’s food and shelter and immediate medical attention, but the needs are so great because there are simply so many people.

We haven’t even started reaching the most vulnerable and that’s our next challenge.

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News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.