Rohingya refugee crisis: A student perspective

Rohingya refugees

In the DCH waiting room, people crouch while waiting for their name to be called to be seen by a physician. DCH physicians have been seeing upwards of 200 patients per day.

Bangladesh – in South Asia – is considered developing but is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Over the past four years, I’ve had the opportunity to travel and conduct research in Bangladesh while working with Associate Professor Molly Kile.

Dr. Kile has been conducting research in the country for well over a decade and has built a close collaboration and friendship with our Bangladesh-based partners at Dhaka Community Hospital Trust (DCH). While on my most recent trip to DCH – funded by a student travel grant from the Evans Family Fellowship to investigate sources of environmental lead exposure – I briefly visited a DCH clinic that provides health services to Rohingya refugees in southern Bangladesh.

The Rohingya are an ethnic population primarily composed of Muslims. Prior to 2017, they largely resided in the Buddhist-majority nation of Myanmar within a small area called the Rakhine State. Last year, the Myanmar military began a brutal campaign of violence toward the Rohingya in response to an incident of Rohingya-lead violence. The Rohingya population has since fled the violence in Myanmar by crossing the border into Bangladesh.

Barrett Welch

Environmental and Occupational Health graduate student Barrett Welch

When we arrived at the camp, I was immediately struck by its enormity. The area is more than 27 square miles and is expanding daily. Temporary looking huts have been constructed with plastic wrap, locally harvested vegetation and anything else useful. This area is rare for a relatively flat country, as it is covered by steep hillsides that are now bare after the forest was cut down during the past six months of Rohingya immigration. These hillsides will undoubtedly be prone to landslides when the annual monsoon season begins. Additionally, there will likely be an increase in diarrhea and infectious disease occurring from the spread of human refuse by rainwater. There has already been a severe diphtheria outbreak in the camp that instigated mass vaccinations.

Inside DCH’s clinic, people come daily to be seen on a first-come, first-serve basis. In the clinic’s waiting area, people crouch and wait to see a physician in one of two private rooms. They can fill simple prescriptions in the small adjacent pharmacy. DCH is focusing on providing maternal and child health services, which will be essential as they expect over 45,000 live births to occur among the Rohingya in 2018. Most of the current pregnancies within the camp are the result of rape that occurred at the hands of Myanmar military personnel prior to – or during – the escape to Bangladesh.

Current estimates put the camp’s population at nearly 1.2 million Rohingya – with an estimated 60 percent to 80 percent being children. I met hundreds of children in just a short walk from the clinic and most were either playing games or in school.

There were two brothers I briefly encountered who were less playful and had a lasting effect on me. The older boy was about 9 and held his younger brother, 2, in his arms. Both boys had stoic looks in their eyes and stood near me and my friend with a mild interest in our foreignness. I typically hand out candy during my research trips through Bangladeshi villages. I only had a meager supply, so I tried to sneak them candy without causing a stir among the other children.

The older brother shyly took the offer and handed it directly to his younger brother, along with any following offers we gave. Seeing the look of concentration on his younger sibling’s face as he tried to open the candy, the older brother’s stoic look slowly gave way to restrained tears. He seemed to momentarily let go of some of the heavy responsibility and pain he must have been holding. This was a personal reminder that many of these children have experienced truly terrible events that will likely bring them pain for many years to come.

The road ahead for the Rohingya is likely to be difficult, as it is still uncertain whether they will be allowed to choose between creating new lives for themselves in Bangladesh or moving back to the Rakhine State. Bangladesh is a welcoming country, but it undoubtedly will require more outside assistance if settling Rohingya domestically.

My hope is that the Rohingya families will be met with compassion and dignity during the remainder of their time as refugees so that they can start to heal. If you feel that you can donate, there are many worthy organizations such as DCH/APADM, UNICEF, MSF or WFP that provide direct relief to Rohingya.

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