It’s only 7am but the heat is already unbearable. Sweat is pouring down my cheeks as I balance myself on a tiny patch of mud ahead of a group of around 3,000 Rohingya refugees. In front of me walks my colleague Zahid Hassan. I can tell from the way he is breathing how nervous he is.
Thousands of refugees had just taken the perilous journey across the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh the previous day. Now they are stuck in ‘no-man’s land’ between water-drained paddy fields, waiting to be allowed by the Bangladesh border guards to enter the country.
Initially we were refused entry to see them but all of a sudden the officer-in-charge changes his mind. There’s mumbling among the border guard staff: a doctor is needed – a woman is about to give birth. Zahid happens to be one.
“I haven’t been practicing for 10 years,” Zahid confides to me nervously. Except for the first aid box in the car, we have no medical equipment, not even a clip for the umbilical cord, but we have no choice. At this early hour, no one else with medical experience is here.
I could feel how Zahid’s heart was pumping as we approached the refugees.
But then he sees the mother in labour, sees her pain, sees her need and all his nervousness is gone. He confidently bends down and assists her, and knows exactly what to do. And he doesn’t stop there.
After the delivery of a beautiful baby girl Zahid takes a look around: children are coughing and weeping, sick adults are lying feebly on the ground, their faces lined with exhaustion. He starts walking up and down the muddy beams, attending to one patient after another.
While he tends to the sick Zahid shouts out a list of essential medicines to me, which I relay through my phone to a colleague in a nearby market. Tirelessly, in the burning heat, he goes on and on for hours, until the sun sets, not even stopping for food or drink. When he identifies some children that are in such bad shape that we fear for their lives, he starts negotiating with the border guards and manages to get permission to take them out to a proper hospital for immediate life-saving treatment.
Since late August 2017, around 688,000 Rohingyas have fled violence and persecution in Myanmar and searched refuge in Bangladesh.
688,000 – that’s roughly the population size of Washington D.C.
The camps are hopelessly overcrowded. Clean water and sanitation, food, health and nutrition are the most urgent needs for children and, worryingly, diseases such as measles and diphtheria are already spreading.
UNICEF is supporting vaccination campaigns against these diseases to help contain outbreaks and, together with partners, we are providing clean drinking water, building toilets and running nutrition centres.
After experiencing horrible, unthinkable ordeals, many children are also in desperate need of protection and psychosocial support for their trauma. UNICEF is offering support in child-friendly spaces, spaces where children can play and get individual psychosocial care. UNICEF is also working towards providing education to all refugee children in the camps.
Many gaps to fill
While much has been achieved to improve the conditions for children in the camps, there are still many gaps to fill, especially as monsoon season is fast approaching. Bangladesh is prone to cyclones and torrential rains, and the area where the refugee camps are situated is particularly vulnerable. Due to the lack of space, many huts have been built on dangerous slopes and are at risk of being washed away during the rains.
The future for the refugees in the camps, it appears, looks dim. And indeed, during my time in the camps, I witnessed a lot of hardship and suffering. But amidst it all there is also hope.
Incredibly generous Bangladeshis in the host community are sharing the little they have; aid workers like Doctor Zahid are helping until near exhaustion; and the Rohingya refugees themselves are a stunningly resilient group of people that keeps persevering against all odds.
We must continue to support them to both meet their immediate needs and to find durable solutions to the underlying causes of their displacement. Everyone must work together to offer that little baby girl born in the paddy fields, and the thousands of Rohingya children, a fair chance in life. They deserve it.
Andreas Wuestenberg works at UNICEF East Asia & Pacific and was UNICEF’s Emergency Field Coordinator in the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, from October 2017 to January 2018.