In August 2017, armed attacks, massive scale violence, and serious human rights violations forced thousands of Rohingya to flee their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Many walked for days through jungles and undertook dangerous sea journeys across the Bay of Bengal to reach safety in Bangladesh. To date, approximately 880,000 have found safety in the Cox Bazar’s region of Bangladesh which is now home to the world’s largest refugee camp. The United Nations has described the Rohingya as “the most persecuted minority in the world.”
The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority group who have lived for centuries in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar - formerly known as Burma. Despite living in Myanmar for many generations, the Rohingya are not recognized as an official ethnic group and have been denied citizenship since 1982, making them the world’s largest stateless population.
The Rohingya have suffered decades of violence, discrimination and persecution in Myanmar. Their largest exodus began in August 2017 after a massive wave of violence broke out in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, forcing more than 700,000 people - half of them children - to seek refuge in Bangladesh. Entire villages were burned to the ground, thousands of families were killed or separated and massive human rights violations were reported.
Today, more than 880,000 Rohingya refugees are living at the Kutupalong and Nayapara refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar region - which have grown to become the largest and most densely populated camps in the world.
Approximately 75 percent of those living in the Cox’s Bazar region arrived in September 2017. They joined more than 200,000 Rohingya who had fled Myanmar in previous years. More than half of those who have arrived are women and children.
Rohingya refugees have also sought refuge in Malaysia (101,000) and India (18,000), with smaller numbers settling in Indonesia, Nepal, Thailand and other countries across the region. Approximately 600,000 Rohingyas remain in Myanmar, of whom 142,000 are internally displaced (IDP) and confined to closed IDP camps.
On March 22, a massive fire broke out and devastated parts of the Kutupalong-Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, destroying more than 9,500 shelters and leaving more than 48,000 Rohingya refugees homeless. Approximately 1,600 vital services facilities were also destroyed in the blaze - including hospitals, learning centers, aid distribution points and a UNHCR registration center.
The UN Refugee Agency has stepped up efforts to re-issue refugee identity documentation destroyed during the fires, provided temporary shelter and emergency relief items – such as blankets, solar lamps, jerry cans, kitchen sets, mosquito nets, clothing and hygiene. The UN Refugee Agency has also supported the distribution of food and clean water and provided psychosocial aid to affected families. Working with partners, UNHCR has also helped reunite more than 600 separated children with their families and deployed mobile medical teams equipped with supplies to provide emergency first aid.
The monsoon season runs from June to October each year and brings heavy rainfall and strong winds to Bangladesh, increasing the risk of floods and landslides. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have found refuge in flimsy shelters made of bamboo and tarp which have been built in areas prone to landslides, which may not stand torrential rains and heavy winds. During the heaviest monsoon downpours of 2019, more than 4,000 households were temporarily displaced in Cox’s Bazar - one of the wettest areas of the country - and more than 16,000 people affected.
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted this year’s annual monsoon preparations, which could have life-threatening consequences if the preparations cannot be completed in time. Activities in the camps have been reduced to only the most essential, with most of the disaster risk reduction (DRR) efforts suspended - such as improvements to drainage systems and slope stabilization work and the relocation of refugees living in dangerous areas been delayed. The rainy season also exacerbates the risk of disease - such as hepatitis, malaria, dengue and chikungunya - in crowded camps that don’t have proper water and sanitation facilities, putting children and the elderly at particular risk.
Respecting the autonomy, leadership and input of refugees is essential when responding to a crisis. With this in mind, UNHCR and partners have supported elections for refugee representatives in several Rohingya settlements. These refugee representatives play an important role in relaying information to the community and communicating refugees’ needs and feedback to camp authorities.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, UNHCR has also trained a group of community health volunteers — 50 percent of whom are women and girls. This group has become essential in providing health education, conducting community outreach and delivering first-aid, as there has been an 80 percent reduction in humanitarian workers in camps to prevent the spread of the virus. Having the opportunity to support and shape their community empowers many Rohingya women and gives them the chance to learn new skills and regain control of their lives.
Also as part of the livelihood activities conducted in camps, in 2020 more than 500,000 masks were produced by refugee and local Bangladeshi women. This ongoing initiative is providing free masks to all refugees and an income to approximately 284 refugee women and 60 women in the host communities.
UNHCR is on the ground providing lifesaving humanitarian support to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees. However, they need your help. Becoming a monthly donor is the most efficient and effective way to help those fleeing conflict. Make a difference in the lives of refugees by becoming USA for UNHCR’s newest monthly donor.