Bangladesh’s refugee camps are on the brink of a “public health disaster,” Doctors Without Borders (MSF) warned, saying filthy water and feces flow through shanties bursting with Rohingya Muslims who have fled violence in Myanmar.
Nearly 430,000 Rohingya have poured into Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar in under a month, seeking refuge from an army-led crackdown across the border in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, which the UN has described as “ethnic cleansing,” AFP reported on Friday.
The weary and wounded arrivals have shocked the world with stories of Myanmar soldiers and Buddhist mobs driving them out of their homes with gunshots and arson attacks that have razed entire villages to ash.
While Bangladesh has offered sanctuary from the terror, there are dire shortages of nearly all forms of relief in what has become one of the world’s largest refugee settlements in a matter of weeks.
MSF warned that a “massive scale-up of humanitarian aid is needed in Bangladesh to avoid a public health disaster.”
“We are receiving adults every day on the cusp of dying from dehydration,” said Kate White, the group’s emergency medical coordinator.
“That’s very rare among adults, and signals that a public health emergency could be just around the corner.”
There are no official roads into the slum-like settlements that have sprung up outside official camps, complicating aid delivery in the hilly, mud-slicked terrain.
“There is a complete absence of latrines,” added White. “When you walk through the settlement, you have to wade through streams of dirty water and human feces.”
With chaotic and patchy food distribution, many Rohingya are only eating one meal of plain rice per day, she added.
‘Safe zones’ for Rohingya
Bangladesh’s prime minister on Thursday proposed creating UN-supervised safe zones inside Myanmar to protect Rohingya Muslims.
“These people must be able to return to their homeland in safety, security and dignity,” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told the UN General Assembly.
Hasina accused Myanmar authorities of laying landmines on the border to prevent the Rohingyas from returning and said the United Nations must take immediate measures to find a solution to the crisis.
The prime minister laid out a five-point plan that called for the protection of the Rohingya in “safe zones that could be created inside Myanmar under UN supervision.”
Bangladeshi troops were deployed this week to build more toilets and shelters for thousands still sleeping out in the open despite regular monsoon rains.
On Friday the UN’s Refugee Agency said it was speeding up the distribution of plastic sheeting to provide basic protection from the elements as authorities work on erecting a new 2,000-acre shelter.
The camps are “bursting at the seams and, yes, there are risks of diseases, so that is why the extension is so crucial,” said UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic.
The potential of an infectious disease outbreak is “very high,” according to MSF, citing the rapid population increase and low vaccination coverage among the Rohingya, who lived in impoverished conditions in Myanmar.
“One small event could lead to an outbreak that may be the tipping point between a crisis and a catastrophe,” said MSF emergency coordinator, Robert Onus.
The humanitarian emergency has heaped global pressure on Myanmar’s government to halt military operations in Rakhine state, which was once home to a 1.1-million-strong Rohingya population.