Myanmar refugee crisis: CARE’s response in action

Zia Choudhury
CARE Bangladesh country director Zia Choudhury talks to a young woman refugee and her children

At the end of August last year, an influx of refugees arrived in Bangladesh, fleeing violence in Myanmar.

As of February 2018, more than 670,000 had fled across the border – making the exodus one of the fastest growing refugee crises in the world.

Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh is host to the most densely populated refugee settlement in the world. More than 880,000 refugees – most of whom have arrived in Bangladesh from Myanmar – are estimated to be living there.

Shelters on hillside at refugee camp in Bangladesh
Temporary shelters on deforested hillsides in the sprawling refugee camps

Most arrived with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Many were traumatised by violence they had experienced and witnessed back home, and desperately needed food, shelter, health services, water, clothes and protection.

This has been a crisis on an unimaginable scale.

It has been six months since the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) launched its emergency appeal for Myanmar refugees. These donations to the DEC have been distributed among CARE and other agencies and have been put into critical services for men, women and children who have fled violence.

Thanks to DEC funds, and to the generous donations of CARE supporters to our own emergency appeal, we have been able to focus on our approach of prioritising women and girls in emergencies. Whether younger or older, menstruating, pregnant or menopausal, all have specialised needs which require specialist solutions.

Four girls inside a tent shelter in Bangladesh refugee camp
Four sisters who fled Myanmar without their parents after their home was attacked and their parents dragged away by armed men

Our approach is particularly needed in Cox’s Bazar, where 70% of inhabitants are women and children. Many of the women and girls who have fled Myanmar have experienced sexual violence. Many of those who have not been victims themselves will likely have witnessed another person be assaulted.

For women to process what they have experienced, it is crucial that they can access safe spaces. Every day, dozens of women visit women-only spaces set up by CARE, which provides private psycho-social counselling and health checks.

Woman outside women friendly centre in Bangladesh refugee camp
“After everything I witnessed I can finally find peace at the women centre. Meeting other women gives me hope,” says Nur-e-Jannat

From here, they can also get referrals to specialist services should they need it, such as hospitals outside the camp and information on other social services available at the camps.

Beyond this, the space also provides an opportunity for women to socialise, laugh, play board games or just sit quietly with a cup of tea.

Women playing a board game in a women's centre at refugee camp
Women playing a game at the women-friendly centre in Potibonia camp

Our women-only spaces have provided a safe haven for people like Hamida (name changed), who was raped by armed men before fleeing across the border. She told me, with tears running down her face:

I sent my children away into the jungle and I just went back to lock the door. But it was too late – two men pushed through the door and grabbed me. They raped me.

One of her children, Sohidul, was shot and killed.

Woman and boy in silhouette inside tent at refugee camp
Hamida (name changed) and one of her children inside a tent at the refugee camp

Upon arrival in Cox’s Bazar, Hamida’s husband left her for another woman. She now looks after her five remaining children by herself. But being around other women means she can talk. She says:

I find peace at the women’s centre where I’m able to speak to other women.

As with all humanitarian crises, our response to this emergency is to lay the groundwork for long-term change. We don’t want to deliver temporary support and leave nothing behind for communities to move forward with.

That’s why, as part of our strategy to tackle violence against women and girls, we are training other staff in the camp in counselling and psychosocial support, as well as first aid and prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse.

CARE suggestion box at Bangladesh refugee camp
A suggestion box provided by CARE for camp residents

We are also engaging men and boys in the refugee community in the prevention of sexual violence, by holding discussions with them about the risks which women face, and involving them in finding solutions. For example, solar lamps have been established near bathing areas or toilets, where women may go at night.

Men and boys are also more alert to strangers who may be offering opportunities that are too good to be true, like jobs in Dhaka factories – almost always used for trafficking women and children.

Drilling a tube well for water at refugee camp
Drilling a new tube well to provide clean and safe drinking water

CARE has also been improving sanitation and hygiene in the camp – particularly to improve people’s access to safe drinking water and to prevent the outbreak of waterborne diseases.

Thanks to funds from the DEC, we have installed 27 deep tube wells that reach safe drinking water and we plan to install 14 more. Because of these funds – so generously donated by members of the UK public and CARE supporters – we have reached 30,500 people through our work on water, sanitation and hygiene.

Woman washing hands from CARE bucket at refugee camp
A woman washing her hands at a facility provided by CARE

Through our preventative work in this area such as household hygiene promotion sessions and the distribution of water purifying tablets and hygiene kits, we hope to have made a long-lasting impact.

Recognising that cultural norms prevent many women refugees from sharing washing facilities with men, leading to poor hygiene and poor health, we have also constructed more than 525 women-friendly bathing spaces. More are in the works.

All this has been made possible thanks to your generous donations.

Two girls washing at a water pump at Bangladesh refugee camp
Two girls at a water pump; they are washing with soap provided by CARE

What next? The oncoming monsoon season brings new challenges. Beginning in the next month or so, heavy rainfall will pummel the makeshift shelters that many have called home for the past seven months. It might be October before the clouds clear.

According to the United Nations, over 100,000 people are at risk of seeing their homes washed away. The soil on which the camp was built so suddenly last year is unable to absorb large amounts of water.

Sand bags around shelters at Bangladesh refugee camp
Preparations for the monsoon season at Potibonia camp

Many more are at risk of landslides or an outbreak of water-borne diseases, as latrines become flooded and overflow and drinking water becomes contaminated.

CARE estimates that the situation of every single person living in Cox’s Bazar will drastically worsen – and as I write this, we are running out of time. We desperately need the support of the public to continue our crucial work, and to help communities through the following months.

Hillside with tent shelters at Bangladesh refugee camp
Many shelters are on hillsides at risk of landslides when the rains come

We are already training people to build stronger shelters that can withstand heavy rains and landslides, and providing them with toolboxes to renovate those that do get washed away. So far we have distributed extra tarpaulin, bamboo, sandbags, rope and tools to around 22,000 refugees. More than 800 families whose homes teeter precariously atop hills have been relocated.

We have also connected new drains and are building steps, clearing roads, installing street lamps and trash bins, constructing more wells and latrines.

Woman descending steps towards latrines at refugee camp
A woman descending steps to latrines at the refugee camp

It is a race against time, and refugees from Myanmar are bracing themselves for what is to come.

But they’re not alone – we are still here with them. Thanks to you.

donate now

Zia Choudhury's picture

Zia Choudhury is Country Director of CARE Bangladesh.