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Living Conditions in Kutupalong Bulukhail
Myanmar 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

Child Refugees in Uganda
With a mass exodus from South Sudan, Uganda has become the largest refugee-host nation in Africa. Both 2017 and 2018 saw a significant influx of refugees into the country. Experts believe the number of refugees is only going to increase in the upcoming period.

As more and more refugees enter Uganda, its basic services and resources are continuously put under increased stress. Child refugees in Uganda have become a very significant issue facing the Ugandan government and international organizations. However, government and different organizations teamed up to initiate a long-term plan to help refugee and native-born children alike.

The Problem in Numbers

As of early 2018, there were over one million refugees from South Sudan and 300,000 from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other closely neighboring countries in Uganda. Out of these 1.3. million, its estimated that 61 percent are children.

Due to a shortage of aid workers, funding and supplies refugee children face severe consequences such as virus and disease outbreaks. The Ugandan Ministry of Health alongside the U.N. International Children’s Emergency Funds (UNICEF) were able to successfully stop a Marburg virus outbreak in refugee camps. Despite this achievement, there are growing concerns about measles, malaria and cholera.

Many child refugees in Uganda face little access to education. Only 35 percent of 5-year-olds entering primary schooling were enrolled in any sort of educational programs provided by nonprofit organizations or by the Ugandan government.

Extremely high acute malnutrition rates ranged from 14.9 percent to 21.5 percent among new arrivals, with some areas experiencing a 2 percent growth in malnutrition rates in 2018.

There is a high number of unaccompanied children that are often the most vulnerable with little to no support from adult-aged persons. These children can be easily forced into armed groups or sex slavery.

The Northern Region of Uganda is responsible for most of the refugees and has also experienced challenges for the local children. For instance, 24 percent of females older than 15 are illiterate, 17 percent of school-aged children are out of school, 53 out of 1000 children die before their fifth birthday and 21 percent of Ugandans live in poverty.

Nongovernmental Organizations Efforts

While the refugee crisis has proven to be a great challenge for Uganda, the country has chosen to commit its resources in order to protect and provide for the vulnerable population living alongside the local population. Three international organizations have begun long-term projects in order for the Ugandan government to reform the country and better care for refugees and native populations alike.

Save the Children

Save the Children is the largest global charity for children started in the United States. The nonprofit has worked alongside the U.N. in implementing their programs throughout Northern Uganda. As of 2017, Save the Children oversaw six refugee sites, an emergency health unit teamed up the Ugandan Ministry of Health and 30 child-friendly spaces and educational facilities. Moreover, additional programs extended beyond refugee camps to encompass local communities with the goal of increasing child protection, education and food and economic security.

According to their 2017 report, 66,114 children were given shelter, 89,790 were cared for in crisis situations, 312,790 were provided with medical and sanitation supplies, 20,169 were raised from malnutrition and 3,154 parents were supported to meet the basic needs of their children.

UNHCR

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has primarily focused its attention on identifying refugee populations and supporting unaccompanied children. Working in close collaboration with the Ugandan government, the agency’s largest biometric data in history was launched in 2017. The point of recording refugees and providing identification for them is to better plan and situate resources and responses. If aid groups know exactly where vulnerable populations are and what are their circumstances, then professionals will respond more effectively and efficiently. To this date, over one million refugees have been identified.

As children spill across the border without adult supervision, extra resources are needed for their protection. The UNHCR has created and built settlements where older children are the heads of the household and they are provided with shelter, protection, education and basic services. However, staff shortages have proven difficult to monitoring these children at all times.

UNICEF

UNICEF has taken a lead role in helping child refugees in Uganda by directing programs between the Ugandan government and active nonprofits. Unfortunately, the agency only received 30 percent of requested funding in 2017. Despite these shortages, 61 percent of total targets were still met in nutrition (741,436 children aided), health (667,050), sanitation (463,480), protection (13,821), education (119,059) and HIV & AIDS (4,630).

With these results in mind, UNICEF has ambitious goals going forward. In 2018, the organization is expecting a final requested funding of more than $66 million. This funding will be focused on education, health, water and sanitation, nutrition, protection and HIV/AIDS.

Furthermore, the agency is beginning the planning of a long-term and collaborative program between nonprofits, the Ugandan government and international agencies. The basic provisions of the program include the dispersion of technological supplies and know-how, national educational and health strategies linked with refugees and the strengthening of emergency response teams. For example, m–Tac, a mobile app recently introduced to Uganda, allows agencies to send vital information to field teams during crises.

Humanitarian groups and the Ugandan government are launching some of the world’s largest refugee programs. The question of receiving refugees has long been about how to best protect them from harm and danger. The child refugees in Uganda certainly have a long path ahead of them, but they won’t have to walk on alone.

– Tanner Helem
Photo: Flickr

Refugees in New Zealand
With 65.6 million displaced individuals worldwide, including 22.5 million refugees, issues of refugee resettlement have become increasingly important. Even when countries do accept refugees, finding employment and housing can often be difficult, and refugees may find that the local community is resistant to their presence. To combat some of these issues, Pomegranate Kitchen, an organization that provides catering services, was formed in 2016 exclusively to employ female refugees in New Zealand as cooks, offering them work that allows them to use skills they already possess and share their cultural food with others.

Disputes Over New Zealand’s Refugee Quota

New Zealand, which currently has a population of 4.7 million, has taken in more than 33,000 refugees since World War II. The nation prides itself on having a strong resettlement program: all refugees in New Zealand spend their first six weeks at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Center (MRRC), which has programming designed to prepare refugees for life in the nation, including how to find employment and housing. Additionally, the government has launched a community sponsorship pilot program that will assist in refugee resettlement, providing English language classes and helping refugees navigate their communities.

However, New Zealand has faced criticism for the low number of refugees that they accept. The nation maintained a yearly quota of 750 refugees from 1987 until 2016, when the government raised the quota to 1,000 in response to claims by surrounding nations that New Zealand was not doing its part in sharing the burden of the global refugee crisis. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the labor-led government pledged in the summer of 2018 to further increase the yearly quota to 1,500, although there is currently no timeline for this change.

Pomegranate Kitchen’s Inspiration

Amid these discussions of quotas and costs, Rebecca Stewart, the co-founder of Pomegranate Kitchen, wants to bring the human element of the refugee crisis back into focus. She founded Pomegranate Kitchen in October of 2016 with her step-mother, Angie Winther, to provide employment opportunities for female refugees in New Zealand. Although Stewart and Winther do not have the ability to resolve government debates, they are doing what they can by making a difference for refugee women living in their community.

The inspiration for Pomegranate Kitchen came when Stewart worked for the Red Cross and saw the difficulties many refugees had in finding employment due to language barriers and lack of experience. Stewart believes that it is important to focus on the skills that refugees possess and what they can bring to New Zealand’s society.

Growth and Structure of Pomegranate Kitchen

Although the organization started small, Pomegranate Kitchen has developed significantly since 2016. Initially, they shared a kitchen with another restaurant and had to run a PledgeMe campaign to get the business going; now, thanks to community support, the catering service is thriving and hopes to continue to grow. Stewart stated that they have “been really lucky that so many people in the community understand what we’re trying to do and support it.”

Pomegranate Kitchen currently employs cooks from Iran, Ethiopia, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite some tensions due to cultural differences, the refugee cooks at Pomegranate Kitchen all get along fairly well and operate within a collaborative, rather than hierarchical, system. Stewart provides training on how to work in a commercial kitchen, including recipe creation, health and safety and stock management, but the women do not need extensive cooking training as they already have significant skills.

Additionally, refugee women are involved at all levels of the organization, including as head chefs and supervisors. This involvement ensures that the voices of the refugees are heard and considered in the decision-making process. Women in higher-level positions are also able to develop new types of skills including managerial, interpersonal and time management.

Benefits to Local Communities

Through Pomegranate Kitchen, refugees in New Zealand have been able to connect with the local community. Pomegranate Kitchen’s cooks use their own recipes to make dishes from their homelands, bringing new cuisine to New Zealand. A refugee from Iraq who works as a cook stated that she found her work rewarding because “people are interested to learn about my culture and enjoy the food we have to offer.” Stewart emphasized the role that Pomegranate Kitchen plays in community building by stating, “Our cooks are sharing their food and bridging the cultural divide.”

Pomegranate Kitchen shows how even small organizations have the potential to make a great difference for refugees in New Zealand. While the government works through decisions on how many refugees should be accepted into the country, it is crucial that the refugees who have been accepted continue to receive the necessary support to build a new life for themselves.

– Sara Olk
Photo: Flickr

Humanitarian Assistance for Elderly RefugeesDespite UNHCR regulations that call for adequate humanitarian assistance for elderly refugees, older people are often not the focus of aid programs. Organizations such as HelpAge International, however, along with UNHCR, are working to improve services and care for elderly refugees by developing a more comprehensive understanding of their struggles and needs.

Lack of Humanitarian Assistance for Elderly Refugees

Older persons, defined by the UN as people over 60 years of age, are particularly vulnerable when displaced from their homes. Lack of mobility, chronic illness or weakened vision can hinder their ability to flee. They may also be reluctant to leave, concerned about becoming socially isolated or physically separated from their families. A study of eastern Ukraine found that approximately half of all the older people remained home when the conflict began and that many were left behind due to their reduced mobility.

Even after older people manage to leave, humanitarian assistance to elderly refugees may not fully address their needs. An Overseas Development Institute report explains that “while humanitarian principles require that aid is delivered in an impartial manner, based on needs alone, in emergencies humanitarian organizations tend to implement blanket, one-size-fits-all programmes that fail to adequately address the specific vulnerabilities of older people.”

One of the primary reasons for this is that elderly refugees make up a small percentage of refugee populations, approximately 8.5 percent. This leads them being deprioritized in favor of larger demographic groups, including women and children. It is estimated, however, that by 2050 there will be more people over the age of 60 than under the age of 12.

Needs of Older Refugees Neglected

Areas in which the needs of elderly refugees are not always properly addressed include safety, protection, nutrition, medical services and mental health. Elderly refugees have a greater risk of experiencing violence, including sexual and domestic abuse. They are also likely to be exploited by family members. These risks are greater for women, those with disabilities and LGBT individuals.

Additionally, older people need food that is easy to eat and digest, and may become malnourished due to their inability to consume regular food. UNHCR reported in 2016 that humanitarian assistance for elderly refugees generally does not meet the food requirements of older people.

Two-thirds of elderly refugees have been found to suffer from poor physical health. In a study about older Syrian refugees in Lebanon, it was found that most of them had at least one non-communicable disease: 60 percent had hypertension, 47 percent had diabetes and 30 percent had some form of heart disease, indicating a need for more comprehensive health services.

Mental health is also a significant area of concern. Older people, who often have a great deal of prestige and important societal roles, find that they lose much of their influence, power and resources when they become refugees. This is partly due to the fact that one of their main resources, life experience, is less relevant in new, unknown settings. Western values and education serve to give more prominent roles to younger people.

The loss of their traditional roles in addition to the trauma resulting from conflict and fleeing was found to have caused depression and mental illness among older South Sudanese refugees in a study published by the Overseas Development Institute. Respondents indicated that they felt isolated from their community and families, sensing that younger generations no longer respected them. They were also concerned that their families would grow tired of having to care for them.  

Uncertainty about being able to return to their homes can also cause psychological stress in elderly refugees. The family of Dagha, a 101-year-old Syrian refugee, stated that she often cries in her sleep and that her greatest fear is that she will die in Lebanon. Dagha reportedly asked her family to promise that they will bury her in Syria.

Providing Humanitarian Assistance

Improving humanitarian assistance for elderly refugees is an attainable goal. Aid organizations have the funding needed to make older refugees a greater priority, and an article in The Guardian explains that “mindset is the main barrier to inclusive humanitarian assistance, not money.”

UNHCR has a renewed commitment to focusing on elderly refugees and has outlined several practices ensuring aid is used to meet their needs. First, it is important to communicate with older people, both about their specific needs and concerns, and the services available to them. Important messages need to be in a format that elderly refugees can access. Working with older people to determine what works best for them is vital.

Older people should also be prioritized in reunification efforts and moving forward they should not be separated from family members. Additionally, the needs of elderly refugees should be considered when designing shelters and settlements.

In response to mental health concerns, aid workers need to improve their understanding of what elderly refugees want out of their lives in new and unfamiliar locations. Many South Sudanese informants stated that they wished to regain the societal and familial roles they had held before leaving.

With the help of organizations such as HelpAge International and UNHCR, humanitarian assistance for elderly refugees will hopefully begin to improve, moving toward fully addressing their needs and concerns. Life for elderly refugees will likely continue to be difficult, but better aid can lessen their struggles and improve their general livelihoods.  

– Sara Olk
Photo: Flickr

South Sudan Refugee Crisis

Founded in 2011, the young nation of South Sudan has been fraught with civil war for the past few years, resulting from the conflict between President Kiir and his former Vice President Machar. More than just a political struggle, the rift between Kiir and Machar is connected to ethnic tensions between the Dinka people and the Nuer people; Kiir belongs to the Dinka, and Machar to the Nuer. Ethnic tensions have long existed in the region, but the conflict between the two political officials has ignited these tensions, creating civil war.

The South Sudan Refugee Crisis

The violence created by these warring political leaders has forced civilians to flee the country to escape the bloodshed, resulting in the South Sudan refugee crisis. The number of refugees continues to skyrocket, with over two million refugees reported in 2017. The majority of these refugees are children, many of whom are malnourished and suffering physical and emotional trauma.

Many of these refugees have come to bordering Uganda, itself the site of recent conflict as Joseph Kony used guerilla warfare and child soldiers against the Ugandan government throughout the 1990’s. Former refugees of Uganda often found themselves in the region that is currently South Sudan.

Uganda’s Capacity for Refugees

Having driven Kony out of the country, Uganda not only welcomes the return of its people but is known for its welcoming refugee policy. The country has become a haven for victims of the South Sudan refugee crisis, hosting around a million refugees.

However, Uganda’s friendly refugee policy—which allows refugees the chance to own land and travel freely about the country—is taking a toll. As Uganda hosts more and more refugees, it faces overcrowding and an inability to quickly meet the demands of all the new people. The country’s refugee camp Bidi Bidi, home to over 270,000 people, is the largest refugee camp in the world. To avoid too much congestion at Bidi Bidi, other refugee camps are opening around the country, but the process of being welcomed in Uganda may take several days. This raises the question of Uganda’s limit as the civil war continues in its northern neighbor, South Sudan.

Hope for South Sudan’s Refugees

There is hope, however, for the victims of the South Sudan refugee crisis. As numbers increase in the refugee camps in Uganda and its eastern neighbor, Kenya, the EU has announced a €34 million aid package to help alleviate the burden of hosting the refugees. The majority of the money, following the majority of the refugees, will be headed to Uganda. The aid is meant to help the influx of new refugees from South Sudan, as well as incoming refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The EU’s assistance will also provide clean water, food and education for the large child population among the refugees.

Whether or not the large influx of refugees in Uganda will continue remains to be seen. On June 27, Kiir and Machar, the leaders of the civil war in South Sudan, agreed to a “permanent” cease-fire under the threat of U.N. sanctions and an arms embargo. If the cease-fire is not violated, the priority of the international community, as well as the South Sudanese government and the warring factions, will be to address the humanitarian crisis and provide aid for the displaced and starving civilians.

With an air of tepid optimism, the EU has also announced €45 million in aid for South Sudan to help the displaced people. This aid is designed to provide food, water and shelter for refugees, and to protect young women from gender-based violence. Should the cease-fire last, refugees will be allowed to return home after five years of conflict and violence, ending the strain on Uganda’s resources. Even if the cease-fire is broken, this moment of peace provides humanitarian aid workers a brief period to focus on civilians and alleviate some of the issues that have been plaguing South Sudan during the war.

– William Wilcox

Photo: Flickr