NZ Red Cross worker's experience at a Rohingya refugee camp

Refugees recently arrived from Rakhine state in Myanmar queue for medical attention from a Bangladesh Red Crescent mobile medical team. (Photo: IFRC/Facebook)

Communications aid worker Corinne Ambler and nurse Guru Dev Singh, who work for the New Zealand Red Cross, have spent the past few months working in Rohingya refugee camps along the Myanmar/Bangladesh border. Ambler shared her perspectives on the humanitarian crisis at a talk in Wellington. Asia Media Centre researcher Rebecca Townsend reports on the top five things to know about the issue.

Guru Dev Singh and Corinne Ambler at an ERU field hospital in Bangladesh. Photo NZ Red Cross

New Zealanders Guru Dev Singh and Corinne Ambler at an emergency response unit field hospital in Bangladesh. (Photo: IFRC)

1. The crisis is unprecedented

The situation is dire, even when compared to other refugee and humanitarian crises. In just a few months, more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from Rakhine state in western Myanmar to the Bangladesh border, mainly to a small area of land around Cox’s Bazar. Once there, they are crowded into makeshift camps. The rapidity and size of the crisis has made it difficult to receive and care for refugees, even for experienced aid workers. Existing and planned facilities fall far short of what is required, and access to medical facilities, safe drinking water, food, and sanitary facilities is challenging.

2. Survivors consistently tell stories of violence

By the time refugees arrive at Cox’s Bazar, they are in grim shape. Most of the refugees are women and children who have fled violence. They tell of witnessing friends and family being murdered, including small babies. Most women report being raped. Many arrive with bullets still in their bodies. 

After fleeing Rakhine state, survivors have had to walk, sometimes for weeks with little food or water. To cross the border to Bangladesh, many must cross the Naf River, where hundreds have drowned.

A transit centre for people coming from the Myanmar Bangladesh border Photo Red Cross

The crowd at a transit centre for people coming from the Myanmar/Bangladesh border. (Photo: IFRC)

3. The Bangladesh government and local communities have limited resources

While Rohingya refugees arriving in Bangladesh are in critical condition, the people in the local communities around the refugee camps also have little to give. The Red Cross has made their field hospital available to local residents as well as refugees, in part as a way to give back to the community.

On top of this, Bangladesh is already dealing with overpopulation and the effects of climate change, which limits the availability of space.

4. Medical help is critical – but so is emotional support

Once refugees arrive at the camps, aid workers rush to provide medical assistance. Children and the elderly are particularly susceptible to severe dehydration and malnutrition, as well as other injuries. Many die after arriving in the camps due to these factors. Nurses, doctors, and other health workers are essential to efforts to care for refugees.

People’s experiences take a huge psychological toll as well. Many have lost family members in addition to their homes. Large numbers of children are orphaned. Giving people hope and creating some normalcy, whether through games or songs, helps children cope with their new situation.

A Red Cross field hospital in Coxs Bazar Bangladesh Photo Red Cross

In October, a Red Cross field hospital opened in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, to assist displaced people. (Photo: IFRC)

5. International media seem to be losing interest

In the early weeks of the crisis, there was great media interest internationally. Red Cross workers fielded calls and visits from journalists. However, as time goes on, attention may be shifting.

To keep the crisis in the public mind, and to let donors know where their contributions go, Ambler and her Red Cross communications counterparts document life in the camps and the efforts of the Red Cross. Their pictures and videos help show what is happening on the ground and support the Red Cross Myanmar Crisis Appeal.

Corinne Ambler's talk, ‘The Myanmar-Bangladesh Humanitarian Crisis: A Red Cross Worker’s Perspective’, was held on 20 November. It was co-organised by Victoria University's Centre for Strategic Studies, and the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Institute for International Affairs.  

– Asia Media Centre