Nearly 400,000 people of the Muslim minority have fled Myanmar in three weeks and joined the existing half a million, who have been living in camps in the bordering Bangladesh district of Cox’s Bazar over the past few decades.
For the new arrivals, there’s not much support other than the food and clothes distributed by the local community.
The International Organisation of Migration or IOM said more than half of the refugees, who arrived since the latest violence broke out on Aug 25, are mainly living on the roadside and in the forests and hills nearby.
It’s unsafe for the refugees, most of them children and women, to stay on the roadside, but it makes sense for them as whatever little aid they might get will come from the members of the local community on trucks.
That’s the case as well for the thousands of families, who have managed to build makeshift homes of plastic sheets on bamboo structures.
“The men and boys are out there near the road to get whatever they can from the trucks,” said Shonebhan, a woman in her mid-40s who lives in one of the thousands of plastic-sheet homes on the hills outside Ukhiya’s Balukhali Bazar.
Ershad Ullah, a refugee who came out from the crowd surrounding a truck throwing out food on the Cox’s Bazar-Teknaf Road, lives with his wife and four children under a tent barely a metre away from the highway.
“Don’t want to go farther from here, or else won’t get anything,” he said adding he has been living there since crossing the border on Sep 2.
The story is the same for other refugees, who are living in the makeshift camps on the steps of the hills in Balukhali, struggling for whatever help they can find.
Forty-year-old Osman was found treading through the mud-clogged path in the Balukhali camp with a shopping bag carrying half a kg of rice and a few potatoes, which he bought from of the small shops near the highway to hills.
“I didn’t manage to get anything from the people who came on trucks and buses with food today, but got hold of some money from a man, who came out from a car and distributed some cash.”
The efforts to meet the desperate need of food, shelter and medical aid are clearly inadequate.
Nonetheless, the plight of the refugees continues as the families wait to find shelter in the scorching heat and rain, with their infants and children.
The only medical aid they are getting is from the scattered camps set up by local voluntary bodies, attending to fever, diarrohea, cold and cut wounds.
A lack of clean water has emerged as a growing concern for the refugees.
Only three 1,200-litre plastic tanks marked ‘safe drinking water’ were seen beside the highway, where the makeshift camps on Balukhali begins.
Aid efforts by the international humanitarian agencies are yet to start in full swing as they are finding it hard to reach people camped on spontaneous sites, according to IOM Asia Pacific spokesperson Chris Lom, who is based in Cox’s Bazar.
The number of new arrivals seen in host communities decreased, and the new arrivals in ‘spontaneous sites’ has increased sharply, he said.
“Not much international aid is out there. People are just throwing out food, clothes and cash from the back of trucks,” Lom told the media in Cox’s Bazar on Wednesday.
However, the UN agencies expect the situation to improve with aid trickling in to the difficult-to-reach areas and the refugees registering in organised camps.
The UN appealed for $77 million last week to tackle the crisis, but aid workers now believe that it will be not enough.
Nobody expected people to come in huge numbers at this speed, Lom said.
But he points out, even if the fund is raised, it will be hard to spend it without ‘proper infrastructure and a mode of operation’ for the stream of scattered refugees.
It’s very important to concentrate on the new arrivals, who are still on the move, and document them so aid can be reached, he said noting the government’s initiative of registering the refugees and providing them with ID cards.
“The registration process will really boost the aid effort.”
While Bangladesh has started biometric screening of old and new refugees and maintains that Myanmar has to take back its citizens, Rohingyas scramble for aid in the roads, forests and hills in Cox’s Bazar.