Although tensions between Myanmar’s Buddhist majority and the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority go back over 70 years, attacks last year have contributed to the fastest growing refugee crisis in recent times.
Countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have seen a steady stream of refugees fleeing violence, with a vast majority of Rohingya crossing the Bangladeshi border into a 6.7 km2 area known as Cox’s Bazar.
According to the United Nations, nearly 860,000 refugees are now there, of whom 655,000 have arrived since attacks in August of last year.
As has been reported over the past several weeks, the conditions in the camps have become increasingly severe. Many of the camps are lacking space and basic necessities among many other needs, says Lindsay Gladding, World Vision Canada’s Director of Humanitarian Affairs, who spent two days in Kutupalong, the area’s largest refugee camp.
“It’s hard to describe… probably one of the worst, if not the worst camps that I have been in,” says Gladding. “[Because of] the sheer number of people who are living in very close proximity to each other, with very rudimentary shelter, most families are still living in tarpaulins and bamboo-made structures. The situation is horrible.”
Many NGOs like World Vision Canada are now on the ground in an attempt to respond to the needs of refugees there. Among the greatest needs are: access to safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, sexual and mental health services, medical services, women and child-friendly spaces, mobility and food-distribution services, basic shelter and security.
On October 31, the Canadian government launched the Myanmar Crisis Relief Fund to encourage Canadians to donate to the cause. The fund tallied donations made to registered Canadian charities from August 25 to November 28, matched the total amount and spread it among charities that applied for the funding.
Canadians ended up donating $12.5 million in those three months. The government’s equivalent is now being distributed to NGOs that applied to the fund.
Based on interviews and information available on organizations’ websites, here’s a breakdown of how much various NGOs received and the kinds of programs they support on the ground.
Medical, psychological and social support
Thousands of refugees are reported to have injuries, the majority of which are gunshot wounds, burns and beatings. Basic medical care for the treatment of disease and immunization are also high in demand because of how close refugees are in proximity to each other.
Refugees have also experienced traumatic events — children and women are some of the most vulnerable groups, suffering great emotional stress. Those who have lost family members or have been sexually assaulted require counselling and support, which some Canadian organizations are providing, including:
The Canadian Red Cross Society (received $1 million): The Canadian Red Cross Society says that medical care is one of its top priorities. New funds are expected to go to additional aid workers, a mobile medical team that serves as a health clinic on foot and the distribution of hygiene kits. In cooperation with the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, materials to build shelters, such as bamboo, blankets and tarps, are also being given out.
International Committee of the Red Cross (received $400,000): The ICRC says that it is providing assistance to many families who have been stranded in the border areas of Myanmar and Bangladesh, offering treatment in mobile health clinics and handing out clean delivery kits for pregnant women. In addition to those services, the ICRC is distributing food rations and clean water and has set up a phone service for refugees looking to contact family.
Médecins du Monde (received $1.5 million): Médecins du Monde dispatched an emergency team to Cox’s Bazar and is supporting local partners by providing health care and psychological support for victims of violence.
Médecins Sans Frontières (received $1.5 million): MSF says that the huge amounts of refugees entering the camps has created the possibility of a public health emergency. The lack of latrines, clean water, medicine and sanitation, coupled with the close proximity of those living in the camps, are all factors which MSF International President Joanne Liu calls a “public-health time-bomb.” On the ground, MSF has brought in midwives, nurses and doctors; an ambulance support system to transport patients; multiple mobile medical teams; counselling for those who experienced sexual assault; and vaccination and booster programs. It also hopes to build latrines, boreholes, a gravity water supply system and to truck water across refugee camps.
Food distribution is becoming increasingly strained in Cox’s Bazar. Many NGOs are struggling to provide or deliver food because of how rapidly the refugee camps are growing, with the unstable tropical climate also proving a problem for transport. Nevertheless, food vouchers and basic food items such as rice and lentils are being handed out by NGOs such as:
World Food Programme (received $500,000): The United Nations’ WFP conducted interviews with more than 2,000 families to understand the priority needs of refugees, as well as the communities that host them. It is planning to scale up its e-voucher program, in which a pre-paid debit card is given to the women of each family to purchase food and supplies from allocated shops. It has also made it a priority to provide nutritional support to children under five years of age, as well as to pregnant and breast-feeding women.
(Even more Canadian organizations, such as Action Against Hunger Canada, are working in the area on this issue as well.)
Sanitation, shelter and water services
Tropical cyclones in the area prevent the stability of basic infrastructure. Floods wash away shelters and contaminate wells, while rising water levels prevent refugees from sleeping on the floor of their tarps. Hygiene facilities, such as latrines and baths, often can’t be used because of how crowded the camps have become. As a result, many NGOs have started to build support services and infrastructure, such as:
The International Organization for Migration (received $850,000): The IOM says that it is one of the primary tarpaulin suppliers in the refugee areas and that it is trying to establish shelters, emergency information service centres and gender-friendly spaces. It is also working to set up mobile health clinics, bring in doctors and nurses, install latrines and truck in water.
Development and Peace (received $750,000): Development and Peace was able to use the money it received from the crisis relief fund, alongside another $650,000 it raised on its own, to focus on three different sectors: shelter, WASH and protection. WASH refers to the construction of latrines, the facilitation of access to clean water, and to making sure refugees are able to live overall in sanitary conditions. Development and Peace is also looking into the creation of educational safe spaces for children.
United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (received $50,000): OCHA has helped to build latrines and emergency shelters made with plastic materials. Its other initiatives include handing out food, like biscuits and rice, establishing mobile health care, putting in surveillance systems for security, and offering training to teachers and staff to provide education.
Women, children and mobility issues
Women and children are among the most vulnerable groups of an already oppressed minority. Many NGOs say that sexual-based violence towards women is extremely prevalent in the area and that children are just as vulnerable. Here are a few organizations working on the issue:
Save the Children Canada (received $2.2 million): The funds that Save the Children Canada received are being used to provide child protection alongside clean water and sanitation services. The organization is also working on building spaces and shelters to withstand cyclones and wet climate conditions.
World Vision (received $1.5 million): World Vision is planning 25 child-friendly spaces, with a huge focus on the protection of children from being trafficked, abused or exploited. Its other main initiatives aim to improve water sanitation by building latrines and providing clean drinking water.
CARE Canada (received $1 million): CARE Canada looks to establish women-friendly spaces and create mobile health clinics for women and adolescent girls. It is also providing hygiene and safe delivery kits for pregnant women while giving out cooked food.
Humanity and Inclusion (received $1.3 million): Previously known as Handicap International, Humanity and Inclusion says that its focus is on providing support to the most vulnerable of refugees, such as pregnant women, children, the elderly and the immobile. Mobility aids such as crutches and canes, hygiene aids like bedpans, dressing kits for injuries and items like kitchenware are among some of the items HI is handing out. It also wants to provide support for those who have already undergone medical treatment, such as rehabilitation for patients and education to caregivers.
The fund’s $12.5 million brings the Canadian government’s support for the crisis to $37.5 million. Louis Belanger, director of communications with Canada’s ministry of international development, says that the match fund was created so that it would give smaller NGOs, which don’t have a lot of marketing power to fundraise, the opportunity to receive funding based on what they can provide.
Belanger also says that the ministry is interested in spearheading matching funds like this one for crises that don’t get as much sustained attention, which makes it more difficult for NGOs to fundraise.
“It’s hard to get out and talk about it, and there’s not always constant media attention,” he says of underreported crises. “So that’s hard, versus when Typhoon Haiyan happened, or [the earthquake in] Haiti, and it was in the news for five days non-stop.”
Development and Peace’s emergency coordinator Stephane Vinhas says that despite all the efforts being put into the creation and maintenance of refugee camps, the end goal is still to have the Rohingyas return to their home state of Rakhine.
“The real solution of this issue is for the people to be able to come back to Myanmar… it is not [continuing] with humanitarian support. We are obliged to do so, but for us, the best solution is for them to come back to their place of origin, and to be able to live there safely.”