Living Conditions in Kutupalong BulukhailMyanmar is a nation of deep ethnic divide. In speeches, prominent military, civilian and religious leaders refer to it was “The Western Gate” — depicting Burmese society as a rhetorical last-line-of-defense, holding back “hordes” of Muslims from “invading” Buddhist Myanmar and Thailand. This “at war” mentality has fermented for generations, culminating in a climate of prejudice where any action is justified.

Background of the Current Crisis

The current crisis began when violence escalated in late 2016. Burmese security forces used hostilities against the ARSA — a Rohingya ethnic militia — as a pretext for military action in a counterinsurgency campaign.

Atrocities followed.

Over 350 villages were burned to the ground between August and November 2017 alone. And, since 2017, 688,000 Rohingya fled into Bangladesh, taking refuge in Bangladesh with the hundreds of thousands who had already fled in the years prior.

Kutupalong Bulukhail — known as the “mega camp” — is the largest of the refugee camps built in the hills of Cox’s Bazar, one of Bangladesh’s poorest districts. It serves as the home to 600,000 people. Swaths of forest needed to be cleared in order to make room for the bamboo and tarp shelters of refugees. While the camp is a source of safety, it was hastily constructed during the crisis and lacks modern infrastructure which means that facilities are far from perfect.

Containing the Spread of Disease

With masses of people living in close quarters without modern infrastructure, infection can easily spread. Focusing on preventing infectious diseases, is often more effective than treatment.

One high priority disease is Diphtheria, a potentially lethal bacterial infection that affects the airways and the heart. Children are in particular danger of contracting the disease. Since Oct. 2017 the WHO has vaccinated 898,000 children, living in and near the refugee camps as part of a targeted prevention program. By inoculating those with the weakest immune systems viruses it can be kept from spreading to adults.

To keep ahead of future problems, 153 independent health facilities serving the refugees have banded together in an electronic Early Warning and Response System created by the WHO. Everyday medical professionals verify and investigate alerts, helping to deliver fast treatment.

Addressing Hunger

Hunger is another concern. Living as stateless, often internally displaced, people many Rohingya have already endured a life of poverty. Their situation is worsened when they are forced to leave everything they cannot carry as they flee to Bangladesh.

Years of poverty and forced migration result in malnutrition. Children are especially vulnerable: 38 percent have stunted growth and 12 percent are severely malnourished.

Once they arrive, organizations like Action Against Hunger (AAH) work to feed refugees. Assisted by Rohingya volunteers, AAH operates community kitchens in the camps which serve 11,000 meals every day. Throughout 2017 the kitchens and other programs have helped 422,963 people.

Providing Access to Safe Water

Water has proven to be a more challenging problem than food or medicine. Providing drinking water and ensuring that it is drinkable is no small feat. AAH, UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders have all made efforts to improve water conditions by digging wells and constructing long-term latrines. AAH alone installed more than 230 drinking water access points in 2017.

Now as monsoon season is here, living conditions in Kutupalong Bulukhail are worse than ever. The heavy rains frequently destabilize the newly deforested terrain of the camp and the threat landslide become apparent. Fortunately, those in the most dangerous zones have been relocated to safer areas by the UNHCR.

The seasonal hardships make Myanmar’s offer of “safe and dignified” repatriation more enticing. However, the U.N. and dozens of aid organizations warn that it is likely a false promise. Refugees that return home would only put them in further danger. Kutupalong Balukhail will likely be their home for some time to come.

One refugee recalls a conversation with her brother:

“I have a brother back in Myanmar. They are still afraid to sleep at night… After coming here, through the blessings of Allah and the Bangladesh government, we can sleep at night.”

– John Glade
Photo: Flickr


Since August 2017, the Rohingya refugee crisis has become an increasingly dire humanitarian issue. Nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar due to incidents of ethnic cleansing, and immigrated to the neighboring country Bangladesh.

Refugee Population in Bangladesh

As of mid-April, 781,000 refugees lived in nine different refugee camps and settlements, and an additional 117,000 in host communities away from the camps. This extreme population influx has made it hard for the Bangladeshi health system to properly pay for and accommodate for new public health risks associated with large refugee populations – including infectious diseases.

In response, large-scale vaccination programs have been introduced to decrease the risk of infectious disease endemics. By January 2018, over 300,000 children under the age of 15 had received a five-in-one vaccination that accounts for a variety of diseases including tetanus, whooping cough and diphtheria; however, that vaccine was not enough to protect said refugee population from infectious disease outbreaks.

Diphtheria in Refugee Camps

Despite vaccinations, diphtheria continued to remain a problem due to a lack of access to a vaccine booster -– immunity to the disease decreases every five years after the initial vaccination. In fact, a diphtheria outbreak was declared in November 2017.

Diphtheria is a bacterial infection that causes thick covering along the back of the throat and leads to difficulty breathing, paralysis, heart failure and death. The bacteria produces a toxin that causes sore throats, weakness, fever, respiratory issues and swollen neck glands.

Rapid Outbreak

The first reported case was found in a Balukhali camp; however, at its height, the outbreak affected a number of refugee camps around 5000 acres of forested, undeveloped land –- over 150 suspected cases were reported daily.

Since its peak, the outbreak has now decreased to approximately 20 cases a day. The decrease is attributed to the establishment of effective treatment facilities, as well as contact tracing — a critical tool that enables healthcare officials to survey the spread of the disease, specifically, the employment of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Early Warning, Alert and Response System (EWARS).

Early Warning, Alert and Response System

EWARS is meant to “improve disease outbreak detection in emergency settings” by utilizing modern technology to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of diagnosis and treatment in remote areas such as refugee camps.

Zarina Wong, a summer lab assistant at UCSF in the Cardiovascular Research Institute attests to the impact of digital networking, as it bridges the gap between old and new data. “This creates a lot of new opportunities for clinical research,” said Wong. “It can further inform doctors on how the disease may be spreading.”

The program collects disease alerts from over 150 primary health facilities across Rohingya refugee camps, as well as from the general public. Data is immediately uploaded when a utilized device is connected to the Internet.

The alerts are then reviewed, verified for accuracy and assessed for diagnosis. The diseases reported through this program include acute diarrhea, measles, mumps and diphtheria.

EWARS in a Box

WHO distributes EWARS in kits, known as “EWARS in a box,” that contain all of the equipment necessary to establish surveillance activity. The box contains 60 cell phones, “laptops and a local server to collect, report and manage disease data.” The kit also includes a solar generator in order to ensure that the phones and laptops provided function regardless of direct access to 24-hour electricity.

While the kits are pricey, they can support surveillance in up to 50 clinics (fixed or otherwise), serving roughly 500,000 people. The program has also been successfully implemented in Fiji, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

How Does Diptheria Spread?

Diphtheria is typically spread via respiratory droplets from coughing and sneezing. People can also get sick from contact with skin lesions or clothing of someone with diphtheria (a rare phenomenon).

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 percent of diphtheria patients die even after receiving treatment; nearly 50 percent die without treatment. The disease was one of the most common causes of death among children prior to the development of the diphtheria vaccine.

International Support

In addition to EWARS, the international humanitarian community released a joint response plan in March that called for $113 million to go towards Bangladesh’s health sector; however, less than 12 percent of the plan has been successfully funded. A combination of effective surveillance and funding must be maintained in order to provide for Rohingya refugees and their host communities.

Programs such as EWARS prove that community involvement and outreach make a huge impact on the containment of infectious disease such as diphtheria, one that is only enhanced by the technology guiding it.

– Katherine Anastas

Photo: Flickr

7 Facts about the Rohingya GenocideThe Rohingya crisis in Myanmar is not just persecution, but a genocide. According to an April 2018 Al Jazeera feature article, Myanmar has taken part in “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya people by not recognizing the group as people and stripping away basic human rights such as food, shelter and clothing. There is also extreme military violence to eradicate the Rohingya, which has led to seeking refuge in neighboring countries such as Bangladesh, India, Thailand and Saudi Arabia.

7 Facts About the Rohingya Genocide

  1. The Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for centuries. They speak Ruaingga, which is distinct to other Myanmar languages, and they are primarily Muslims. According to Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, evidence of a 1799 document shows that the Rohingya have resided in Myanmar since the 18th century and possibly earlier, considering the earliest records of Muslims in Myanmar are from the 12th century. Today, there are 1.1 million Rohingya living in Buddhist Myanmar.
  2. The Rohingya have had no state identity since 1982. The British rule (1824-1948) considered Myanmar as a province of India, and there was a high volume of Indian and Bangladeshi migration of laborers to Myanmar, which was considered an internal migration. After independence from the British, the Myanmar government recognized the migration as illegal. According to a 2015 report from the International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School, The Union Citizenship Act was passed in 1948 following independence, and the Rohingya were not included. A 1962 military coup required citizens to obtain national registration cards, and the Rohingya were only given foreign identity cards, which limited jobs and educational opportunities. In 1982, a new citizenship law was passed, which did not recognize the Rohingya as one of Myanmar’s 135 ethnic groups.
  3. Religious violence plays a large role in the tension between the Rohingya and the Myanmar government. Since 1982, the Rohingya have been persecuted and victims of violence. The Rohingya make up 2 percent of Buddhist Myanmar’s population but represent the largest percentage of Muslims in Myanmar. Often overlooked, religious violence has been key in the tension between the Rohingya and the military. In 2012, Muslim men had allegedly raped a Buddhist woman, which created massive religious violence against the Rohingya, forcing about 140,000 into camps for internally displaced people. According to CNN, from August to September 2017 alone, 6,700 Rohingya were killed by the Myanmar government while 2,700 died from disease and malnutrition.
  4. The majority of the Rohingya live in the Rakhine state, one of the poorest states in Myanmar, and it is illegal for the Rohingya to leave. In addition, 362 villages have been destroyed by the military. Rakhine is filled with “ghetto-like camps” and lacks access to education, healthcare, services, homes, water, etc., stripping the people of basic human needs.
  5. Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace laureate and Burmese leader, has kept quiet on the genocide. Aung San Suu Kyi has neither criticized nor praised the Myanmar government for the genocide and does not recognize the Rohingya as an ethnic group. The Myanmar military claims it “maintains peace and stability,” although the U.N. states that the Myanmar military has committed crimes against humanity. Aung San Suu Kyi and her government, in fact, recognize the Rohingya as terrorists, in particular to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.
  6. The U.N. states that the Rohingya genocide is the “world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis.” UNICEF estimates 687,000 have sought refuge dangerously by boat, primarily in neighboring Bangladesh, and over half of them are child refugees. However, Bangladesh has presented resistance to the refugees, because a poor, densely populated country such as Bangladesh will be unable to sustain them. In August 2017, the U.N estimated that there are at least 420,000 Rohingya refugees in Southeast Asia. Additionally, there are around 120,000 internally displaced Rohingya. An estimated half a million Rohingya are still in Myanmar.
  7. International aid has provided 700,000 Rohingya with food, and aid is imperative to save the ethnic group. International help has greatly impacted the Rohingya community. In addition to food, countries, such as Pakistan and India, have helped with providing refugee camps for the Rohingya. Almost 100,000 people have been treated for malnutrition. By January 2018, 315,000 children have been vaccinated for diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough. The U.K. has provided 59 million euros for those fleeing Myanmar, and the U.N. Security Council has appealed to Myanmar to stop the violence against the Rohingya.

The Rohingya genocide is described as “the world’s most persecuted minority.” Myanmar is committing crimes against humanity with ongoing violence, refugees, disease, malnutrition, poverty, etc. The Rohingya genocide must be seen through a humanitarian and moral lens to put an end to the atrocities being committed.

– Areina Ismail
Photo: Flickr

Rohingya Muslims in MyanmarAs the world has begun to pay more attention to the refugee crisis concerning Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, the problem with State Chancellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s response—or lack thereof—has come under scrutiny.

The refugee crisis only illuminates the persecution of Rohingya that has been going on for decades. The U.N. reported that government troops in Myanmar have committed crimes against the minority Muslim population—such as murder, rape and arson—that have made living in their home country impossible.

Furthermore, the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar have been denied citizenship since 1982, and are not considered to be one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups.

While the military in the country denies such allegations, thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar, hoping to find an escape from the brutality that has taken over their lives. Most Rohingya flee to neighboring countries, but the brutality against the refugees has not stopped, only transitioned from one predator to another. Aljazeera reports that the head of the U.N. International Organization for Migration (IOM) is “concerned” about the violence taking place in Bangladesh against the minority Muslim population, and has every right to be.

The violence is reported to be sexual in nature and gender-targeted, which only solidifies the concerns held by world leaders that Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi is not going to openly oppose the violence being carried out by citizens of her country against the Rohingya. In fact, the State Chancellor has refused to acknowledge the ethnic cleansing for quite some time.

Human rights groups and the U.N. have called on the State Chancellor to take action and stop the senseless murder of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

Unfortunately, the politics of the situation are more complicated than it may seem.

The BBC reports that under Myanmar’s constitution, the military is a very powerful entity that prevents Myanmar from taking steps towards democracy. Despite calls by international leaders and human rights groups for Aung San Suu Kyi to denounce the violence, it is ultimately the military’s stronghold over the government that has prevented her from speaking out.

Still, many believe that the State Chancellor should be stripped of the Nobel Peace Prize that she was awarded in 1991.

Finally, after an unusual period of silence, the State Chancellor addressed the violence. Amid the confusion and horror that has become everyday life for the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi has stated the Rohingya will be allowed to return to their home country.

The road home is seemingly far-off—a result of the military’s targeted violence towards their homes, crops and other resources essential for the Rohingya’s survival in Myanmar. However, many in the international community believe the recent attention drawn to the ethnic cleansing will have a positive effect and save the lives of those who need help.

For this reason, it is imperative that the world does not forget about the genocide occurring against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. The international community must pay attention and provide any support necessary.

Jaxx Artz

Photo: Flickr

Rohingya CrisisThe Rohingya are a Muslim minority in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Many Rohingya trace their roots in Myanmar back to the 15th century, yet they have been denied citizenship since 1982. For decades, the Rohingya have also been denied some of the most basic human rights that are “reserved for citizens only” such as access to secondary education and freedom of movement. Additionally, the Rohingya are constantly subjected to arbitrary confiscation of property and forced labor. Tension has long fomented between the Rohingya and their Buddhist neighbors; however, the current Rohingya crisis has seen tensions escalate into deadly violence.

The long-persecuted Rohingya civilians are bearing the brunt of death and destruction caused by this conflict. Hundreds of Rohingya villages have been burned to the ground, leaving more than a thousand civilians dead. The violence has caused more than half a million Rohingya to seek refuge in Bangladesh since August 25, 2017 and has emptied at least 175 Rohingya villages in Myanmar.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee convened a hearing on October 5, 2017 to discuss the U.S.’ response to Myanmar’s escalating violence against the Rohingya and how to best address the multifaceted crisis.

The goal of the U.S. is to address the unprecedented magnitude of suffering and urgent humanitarian needs of the Rohingya crisis. Yet, there is a major obstacle in the way of the U.S. response: “Our main challenge in responding to the humanitarian crisis is not due to a lack of resources, but a lack of access,” Acting Deputy Assistant Administrator for the USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, Kate Somvongsiri announced at the hearing.

Although the White House, State Department, and the U.S. Mission to the United Nations have all issued statements calling for immediate unfettered humanitarian access to all affected populations, relief agencies remain severely limited and even suspended in some regions.

“In Myanmar, there is no coverage of [the ethnic cleansing] so people do not actually know what is happening. The generals that run the country have a different narrative and so there is very little recognition of the reality,” Chairman Royce (R-CA) said, “In order to get to that reality it is important to get reporters and [relief agencies] on the ground. As long as that presence is there, it is a check on these types of atrocities.”

The honest and forthright assessment of the Rohingya crisis at the hearing was crucial. Leaders are not complacent and there is a common understanding that increased humanitarian action is desperately needed.

The United States is providing $32 million in additional humanitarian assistance to address the urgent needs of the Rohingya, bringing the U.S. 2017 fiscal year total to $104 million. Additionally, the hearing on October 5, 2017 solidified the opinion of the U.S. that the Rohingya crisis is, in fact, ethnic cleansing. Immediate action is required to stop the violence, deliver humanitarian assistance and hold accountable those who have perpetuated abuses and violations of international standards.

Jamie Enright

Photo: Flickr

Rohingya Refugees in BangladeshDuring the past month, Bangladesh and the world have watched in horror as 400,000 refugees have crossed the border from Myanmar in the wake of an increase in military crackdowns among Muslim Rohingya villages. Many have lost family members in the violence and all have lost their homes. In the wake of the catastrophic events that have unfolded, Bangladesh has been forced to absorb a majority of the shock as ad hoc camps have been built along the borders. With 31.5 percent of its population already living below the national poverty line, aiding the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh may prove difficult for the Bangladeshi government.

Myanmar has made international headlines over the past month as images surfaced of entire villages being burned and destroyed. Beginning in August of this year, Rohingya militants executed a series of attacks in Rakhine State, where a majority of Rohingyas reside. The Rohingya people are known to be one of the most persecuted communities in the world. They suffer from systematic discrimination by both the government and its fellow citizens because they are seen as illegal.

The government of Myanmar responded to the attacks with what is considered by U.N. officials to be “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Thus far, the operation has killed more than 1,000 and forced over 400,000 from their homes.

While Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi said last week in a televised broadcast that the country was ready to welcome back the refugees, there has been skepticism about how welcoming the country will actually be, considering its history of Rohingya mistreatment. Furthermore, she stated that the Rohingya refugees would be allowed back in via a “verification” process. It remains to be seen what that verification process would entail.

Considering the uncertain future for the Rohingya refugees, organizations and countries have already stepped up to not only help the refugees but also the country of Bangladesh, particularly since the economic burden of hosting 400,000 refugees has been great. While Bangladesh has been focusing on its own impoverished citizens, the U.N. has estimated that nearly $200 million will be needed to aid the Rohingya refugees for a period of just six months. Bangladesh has urged the international community to put pressure on Myanmar to halt the influx of refugees, and it has seemed to help.

The U.N. has reported a drop in Rohingya refugee arrivals to Bangladesh since the end of September. While the International Organization for Migration claims that this is “too soon to say that the influx is over,” it is still a small victory for both Bangladesh and the international community. Likewise, Bangladesh has received significant aid from surrounding countries, including 53 tons of relief materials from India. Those materials included rice, pulses, sugar, salt, cooking oil, tea, ready to eat noodles, biscuits and mosquito nets. Additionally, this week, the U.S. agreed to give $32 million in humanitarian aid in the form of food, medical care, water, sanitation and shelter. This comes at a crucial time, as the Bangladeshi government has agreed to build 14,000 temporary homes. This aid will go a long way to support the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh while their future in Myanmar is still unclear.

Sydney Roeder

Photo: Flickr