A severely malnourished child is seen as Rohingya refugees wait to receive aid at a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. (CNS/Cathal McNaughton, Reuters)
TORONTO (CCN) — More than half the Canadian population thinks the Rohingya crisis, which has created a refugee camp of over 600,000 in the Bangladeshi border town of Cox’s Bazar, is “not Canada’s problem,” according to an Angus Reid Institute poll.
But Development and Peace emergency relief program officer Stephane Vinhas wishes his fellow Canadians could walk through the muddy pathways in that town past families huddled under plastic sheeting, as he did for three days in early November.
“If people were to go there actually and see for themselves what is the situation for these human beings — I can understand that if you are far from this, or maybe you don’t want to see — but once you are there I cannot imagine that you won’t be touched by the situation of these people,” Vinhas told The Catholic Register after his return to Canada.
Since late August, Muslim Rohingya have been fleeing violence visited on them both by Myanmar’s military and their Buddhist neighbours. Homes have been burned, women raped and families shot at as they fled in what Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
The Angus Reid poll, taken just after Ottawa appointed former Liberal MP Bob Rae as Special Envoy to the region on Oct. 23, found that only eight per cent of Canadians were following the crisis closely, with another 26 per cent somewhat aware of events.
But if Canadians care about women and children, or just about human beings in general, they should imagine what the refugees of Cox’s Bazar are enduring, Vinhas said.
“When you try to walk across the camp, the camp is very crowded. You walk in the middle of makeshift shelters. It is very narrow. There is mud, because we’ve just finished the rainy season. The shelters are made of bamboo and plastic sheeting. People had nothing when they arrived,” he said.
The majority of camp residents are women and children. They fear getting lost if they leave the camp. The women particularly fear being kidnapped in a region rife with trafficking in women for the sex trade. Many of the families saw relatives killed by wild animals such as tigers as they trekked through jungle to safety across the border.
Humanitarian workers in the camp are worried about impending conflict between camp residents and their host community, said Vinhas. The original population of Cox’s Bazar and the surrounding villages was 300,000. They are now far outnumbered by 600,000 new arrivals and an accumulation of 300,000 more Rohingya who have filtered across the border into the area since the early 1990s. The refugees are camped on a government-owned field which has historically functioned as common cropland and grazing for local farmers. The refugee crisis is depriving the local people of their livelihoods.
“One woman told me the worst was the rain,” said Vinhas. “Roofs were leaking. They don’t have any beds or mattresses. They are sleeping on the ground. They cannot sleep during the night because the ground is wet.”
The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace has worked regularly with Caritas Bangladesh since 1992. The Canadians have already delivered an initial $50,000 as part of an international appeal to all Caritas organizations worldwide to fund a food distribution program that began on Oct. 8. In the first four days, Caritas had delivered rice, beans, oil, salt, sugar, plates and utensils to about 60,000 camp residents.
The Caritas network is now shifting its focus away from food distribution to embrace other essentials of camp life. Shelter, running water and latrines are among the basic necessities Development and Peace is working with partners to provide, said Vinhas.
It’s not as simple as it sounds. The fear of kidnapping and sexual assault means some women are skipping meals in the hope they won’t have to visit the existing latrines inside the camp.
“The women are afraid,” Vinhas said. “Most of the time they spend their life inside the shelter. The problem with the shelter is that, first, there is no ventilation. It is very hot during the day. There is the rain. There is also a lack of privacy.”
Whatever shelters are built have to be sturdy enough to withstand monsoon rains and have floors raised above the mud.
“We have to design where to put the latrines, where they will be accessible and safe,” said Vinhas.
The Caritas Internationalis network is planning an estimated $4 million program aimed mainly at increasing security for the refugee population. All contributions to Canada’s Caritas agency, Development and Peace, specifically for the Rohingya crisis will be matched in a separate government of Canada fund up until Nov. 28.
Caritas Bangladesh isn’t Development and Peace’s only partner in the region. The Canadian Catholic development agency is also funnelling money to the Jesuit Refugee Service, which is delivering education to other displaced, minority people inside Myanmar. JRS will also be involved in the refugee camps in Bangladesh helping to create child-friendly spaces.
While there are immediate needs, Vinhas hopes the Canadian Catholic response goes beyond equipping a refugee camp.
“We have to provide humanitarian help to refugees in Bangladesh, but the real solution is for these people to be able to go back to their own country,” he said. “By all political means, put pressure for them to be able to go back.”