Myanmar refugees 'want a solution'

Myanmar refugees 'want a solution'

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Sally Austin

A week ago, I was in Cox’s Bazaar refugee camp in Bangladesh walking up hills of exposed sandy soil covered by endless bamboo and plastic huts that more than 800,000 refugees from Myanmar now call home. This camp has been referred to as one of the densest in the world and is certainly the densest I’ve ever seen in my more than 20 years working in humanitarian crises around the world. 

Seven months have passed since the influx started and while so much has been done by the government of Bangladesh, CARE, and other humanitarian organizations, enormous challenges lie ahead. A crisis within a crisis is rapidly approaching. The monsoon season starts next month. From April through October, 20-30 inches of rain a month will make the lives of the refugees even more difficult. Homes are balanced precariously on fragile land. Many sit on the edge of unstable hillsides further destabilised by the recent deforestation that occurred for the settlement. According to the United Nations, more than 100,000 people are at risk of having their homes washed away, and many more face the threats of landslides and waterborne diseases as latrines become flooded and overflow, and drinking water becomes contaminated.  

Work is being done to strengthen homes — more poles and tarpaulins are being provided — community preparedness is being discussed, and a few hundred families have been relocated. But this is not enough. CARE and other agencies are requesting more, less hilly land that can better withstand torrents of rain. But time is running out. If homes are not moved, people are at risk of again having to pack quickly and leave their homes.  

During my visit I spoke to women who had been deeply traumatized. I listened to harrowing tales of women who had been raped, whose children have been killed in front of them, whose husbands are missing or have been killed; women whose homes had been burnt to the ground, who had walked more than 16 days to reach Bangladesh. All were anxious about their futures, about their children’s futures.  Amina*, a young woman in the camp, shared that she had lost all her possessions, her home, her cattle, and her livelihood three times. Three times she had fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh following repeated violence in her village. When I asked her what she would like me to share when I reach home she said, “We want a solution.” 

CARE and others have already done much work, but clearly more is needed — and soon — to ensure that the refugees are as safe as possible, especially during the monsoon. After a week of reflecting on the stories and faces I encountered in Cox’s Bazaar, and all the work that’s occurred, I keep coming back to Amina’s words: “We want a solution.” 

*Name changed 


Sally Austin is CARE International's Head of Emergency Operations.

People waiting in line for about five hours to receive warm meals in Potibonia camp in Cox's Bazar Bangladesh. In a camp of more than 900,000 people, the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar has become the site of the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis. Over 680,000 refugees made the perilous journey from neighboring Rakhine State in Myanmar into Bangladesh in just six months escaping violence, death and destruction. The concentration of refugees is now among the densest in the world. CARE has been working in the refugee camps since the beginning of the crisis providing emergency shelter, medical support, clean water, sanitation, gender-based violence support and more. Photo credit: Josh Estey/CARE