Facing the human consequences of inhumanity on the Bangladesh/Myanmar border

World Food Programme (WFP)’s Protection Advisor tells about the many vulnerabilities of Rohingya refugees

Shelley Thakral
Nov 28, 2017 · 6 min read

Having fled unimaginable horror and violence in Myanmar, Rohingya women, children and men in Bangladesh continue to experience extreme hardship and risks, including violence and abduction. Women are particularly vulnerable: from collecting firewood for cooking to going to the toilet, daily activities are fraught with danger for them. As the United Nations marks its ‘16 days of activism against gender based violence’, WFP’s Protection Advisor in Cox’s Bazar, Michelle Sanson, tells about efforts to enhance safety and dignity in camps.

The “megacamp” sprawls flag poles, simple shelters of plastic and bamboo, tall pop-up latrine boxes, well pumps and little else. This is southern Bangladesh and is the human consequence of the inhumanity taking place across the border in Myanmar.

Those who choose to work in these contexts bring their individual skills and capacities: engineers, logisticians, health worlers, nutritionists — and lawyers, like me. Each of us sees the crisis through our own lens — one may be looking at land rights, its suitability for road construction, another for where to place latrines and water points, health centres, schools, food distribution points and so on. My lens — and my focus as WFP’s Protection Advisor — is human rights. I want to make sure every man, woman and child exercises their rights to food, shelter and health.

It is virtually impossible to find a whole family intact (…) There are people who have witnessed the most unimaginable crimes, unthinkable suffering.

There are many cultural and contextual dynamics that impact upon peoples’ access to food and how it is used in the home, and what safety and dignity means for them. I do my best to learn as much as I can, to understand the lives people left behind and the one they are now experiencing, to understand something of their experiences, hopes and fears, the risks they face, and the challenges they encounter as they try to set up their new lives and survive.

It is virtually impossible to find a whole family intact — most have lost loved ones, including parents, babies and frail relatives that didn’t make it out. There are people who have witnessed the most unimaginable crimes, unthinkable suffering. The stories of suffering unfold across the media, the assessments and the consultation — a woman whose baby’s head was stomped on, another whose infant was thrown in the fire, a man who suffered watching his girls be gang raped and murdered, a boy who heard his mother and sister burned alive inside their home. There are no words. Yet they carry their suffering in their eyes, the gaunt sense of loss, trauma, sadness and grief.

The nutrition situation is dire — a recent assessment found alarming levels of malnutrition.

With few possessions and very little options for livelihoods, they are largely dependent on humanitarian assistance to get food, and on scouring their surroundings to find firewood for cooking. Their nutrition situation is dire — a recent assessment found alarming levels of malnutrition, and we need solutions on every level. Filthy, open sewage can create diarrhea which makes malnutrition worse, and better access to health care is needed to prevent further deterioration.

WFP is providing initial emergency assistance to new arrivals, including nutritious fortified biscuits, followed by regular distribution of basic foods such as rice, lentils and oil, plus specific nutritional foods for pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers and children under 5 years of age. We’re also rapidly transitioning people across to electronic vouchers so they can purchase a selection of items in WFP food shops.

Of course, it’s not just about providing food — people also need to be able to cook it. Those who venture out to collect firewood face some major risks. I have visited the outer reaches of the camp and spoken with those returning with bundles of firewood on their heads. They speak about being threatened and having their machetes stolen, and being afraid of wild animals.

There’s a real gender dimension here. Women indicate trafficking, gender-based violence and physical assault as the main risks during firewood collection, while men are most worried about wild animal attacks. Yet it’s mainly boys that I have noticed collecting firewood, and it seems this gender role has been passed on to them.

A recent Oxfam assessment has identified situations of children going to collect firewood and never being seen again. Concerns of kidnapping and trafficking abound. Through WFP’s Safe Access to Fuel and Energy Initiative (SAFE), specialists are looking at how best to tackle this food-related protection issue.

Imagine remaining in a tiny black plastic shelter all day in the heat, with no doors to lock or bathroom to visit.

There are also issues to do with access to safe water for cooking and drinking, and a real challenge for women who remain in their shelters for purdah or safety reasons. Imagine remaining in a tiny black plastic shelter all day in the heat, with no doors to lock or bathroom to visit. We hear of women who are even avoiding eating during the day so they can hold for the toilet until after dark.

There’s also a real fear of getting lost: it’s a maze without real landmarks, every twist and turn makes each black plastic shelter virtually indistinguishable. I too have felt I could very easily become lost — what if I was a child who had gone to find a food distribution? What if I got lost, how would I be able to tell anyone who I am and where my family is?

We also have to think about those who have mobility issues relating to older age, physical disabilities or recent injuries — they have the same need (and right) for food as everyone else, but their challenges in accessing the assistance can be overwhelming. A recent HelpAge assessment found that four in ten older people they spoke with had missed out on aid because they were unable to reach the distribution point, and at the same time, six in ten older people were themselves caring for someone or had a dependant.

Everyone is doing the best they can, in what could be the fastest large population movement this century. New arrivals demonstrate their resilience, finely honed through years of discrimination, in getting up basic shelters and finding what they need to survive.

I have so much respect for these incredibly resilient people and I will never stop learning.

Meanwhile, humanitarians are running behind to put in place essential services and organizations like WFP are rushing to put in distribution points so that people don’t have to travel too far to collect life-saving assistance. We’ve already gone from four nutrition centres to 14, from two WFP voucher shops to six, and we’re using 15 distribution points to reach well over 600,000 people with food.

We’re doing our best to improve safety and dignity in our distributions, with sheltered waiting areas, water and toilets onsite, a breastfeeding corner and porter assistance for the most vulnerable people. We’re giving people information about their rights and entitlements, setting up help desks and providing avenues like a hotline for queries, feedback and complaints.

It’s a rapidly developing, challenging context, and each day there are new insights and fresh challenges, as well as new efforts to find solutions that will restore dignity and respect rights. It’s a real privilege working in support of these incredibly resilient people. I have so much respect for them and I’ll never stop learning.

Words by Michelle Sanson

Read more stories about WFP’s work in Bangladesh.

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