I’ve seen suffering all over the world, but nothing prepared me for the wretched conditions 655,000 people fleeing violence endure in the camps of Bangladesh.
I have stood among tsunami flattened buildings in Aceh and Japan. I have held the hand of a dying infant in flood swamped Pakistan. I have attempted to console the families of loved ones lost to the Bali bombings. And I have helped retrieve the body of a dying man trapped in an earthquake crumpled building.
But nothing prepared me for what I have now witnessed – a city sized population living in squalor after fleeing the horror of human rights atrocities in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state.
Here in the southern Bangladeshi district of Cox’s Bazar we’re hearing from child survivors and their families about the most horrific atrocities, including killing and maiming, abductions, all forms of sexual violence, persecution and forced displacement.
Let me bring this home, so there can be no misunderstanding, no hiding from this heinous man-made tragedy.
Imagine watching the Ashes Boxing Day test, Australia v England. You are with family and friends, enjoying a snag and a cold beer. Armed intruders burst in. A hail of gunfire follows, and intruders gang rape your loved ones, or murder them, right in front of your eyes.
You flee through thick forest or to the coast, standing in the only clothes you own. Your children complain of swollen legs and lacerations. The only hope of survival is to walk for days or board boats bound for the relative safety of a foreign land just across the border. You may make it to the camps there. But you may drown attempting to reach safety.
This is unthinkable for most Australians.
But it is the reality for 655,000 Rohingya people who have crossed the border into Bangladesh fleeing large scale violence that erupted on 25 August 2017. Among those are heavily pregnant women, the elderly and children. In fact, a staggering 378,000 children have fled northern Rakhine state where many have witnessed horrific violence no child should ever see.
Save the Children’s report, Horrors I Will Never Forget, reveals shocking atrocities against Rohingya children in Myanmar. They asked us to share their stories so that the world knows what horrors have happened to them. I shuddered at the account of a soldier dousing a pregnant woman in petrol, then setting her on fire. And the story of a solider throwing a baby on a fire.
In Bangladesh, the Rohingya people may have escaped murder, torture and rape but they face new perils. Now they are forced to live cheek by jowl in sprawling camps.
One in four children under five suffer from acute malnutrition. Poor access to clean drinking water and basic health services has sparked concerns for cholera and other water-borne diseases. There is a deadly outbreak of diphtheria that aid agencies are working to contain. The danger of child trafficking and abuse persist.
We have approximately 1,400 staff and volunteers on the response in Cox’s Bazar. Hundreds of thousands of people have received our relief items like food rations, shelter and basic hygiene kits. We have sent medical staff to establish health clinics to treat malnutrition and to screen for contagious diseases like measles. And we have established scores of child friendly spaces where we have supported nearly 30,000 children to play, recover and be children again.
But the conditions are wretched. Months ago, this area was jungle. Now it’s a maze of shanty structures topped with flimsy plastic sheeting or tin roofing. Children walk barefoot through fetid puddles. The plight of the people will worsen when next year’s monsoon arrives bringing swamp like conditions to the camps. And we have immediate concerns for children with weakened immune systems as the weather turns colder.
Among the mass of weary humanity, there are signs of children being children. I watched as a young child constructed a kite using nylon and a plastic bag. It then flew high in a cloudless sky. Shortly afterwards a young boy trudged by shouldering heavy loads of bamboo for building construction. The moments of innocence seem fleeting here.
It is commendable how much the Bangladesh authorities and local communities have done for the Rohingya people. Some wealthy nations have stepped up to help, but the relief effort remains under-funded by at least $355m (all currency figures quoted have been converted to Australian dollars). The Australian government has so far given $30m, out of a total $566m needed. It is a good start, but given the scale of the need Australia should do more.
We won’t resolve this crisis with funds alone. The international community must work to end the violence, bring perpetrators to justice and insist on immediate, full and unfettered humanitarian access to all people in need in Rakhine state. We need a refugee return process that follows international standards, with substantive UNHCR involvement on both sides of the border. But only if conditions and guarantees have been met to ensure the physical, material and legal safety of returnees.
As the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote, “The worst sin toward our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that’s the essence of inhumanity.”
No society should tolerate the suffering of the Rohingya people. We must stand up to help assist them, especially at this charitable time of year when our thoughts turn to loved ones near and far and no longer with us. That is because the festive season is, at heart, a celebration of love for all humanity. Whether you are a Christian or Muslim, Jew or Hindu, this festive period, in the name of humanity, I urge you to think of the Rohingya people in Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Donate to Save the Children’s Rohingya Crisis Appeal or by calling 1800 760 011
Ian Woolverton is head of media at Save the Children Australia.
This Op-Ed was written for and first appeared on The Guardian.