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    On 25 August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya fled from the systematic persecution in Myanmar to Cox's Bazar district in southeast Bangladesh. The Rohingya refugees arrived at the refugee camp starving, injured and traumatised.

    Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was told of harrowing tales of homes and villages being razed to the ground, some with families helpless in their homes. Women and girls were raped, and children were beaten to death. Men and boys were rounded up and executed in front of family members.

    Animation about the enduring plight of the Rohingya

    British artist Richard Swarbrick (@rikkileaks) was commissioned by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to create a rotoscope animation about the enduring plight of the Rohingya.

    The military came to our part of town around 6pm and said: 'Leave the village before 8am tomorrow. Every one that stays will be killed.
    61-year-old MSF Rohingya patient

    Now, nearly one million Rohingya refugees live in Cox's Bazar. They are crowded into 26 kilometres of land, in what has become the world’s largest displacement camp, clutching to faint hope for a better future.

    The Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh live in limbo, denied of formal education, work opportunities and a way back to their home country. Vital facilities such as toilets and food distribution are all communal, with people often waiting in large groups to access these basic services, including water and sanitation. 

    The uncertainty of their lives has merely worsened with the COVID-19 pandemic, limiting their already curbed freedom and access to life saving healthcare.

    An injured Rohingya boy sits on his bed at MSF's medical facility in Kutupalon

    An injured Rohingya boy sits on his bed at MSF's medical facility in Kutupalong. © Antonio Faccilongo/MSF

    @rikkileaks OCA commissioned British artist Richard Swarbrick to create a rotoscope animation about the enduring plight of the Rohingya

    British artist Richard Swarbrick (@rikkileaks) was commissioned by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to create a rotoscope animation about the enduring plight of the Rohingya.

    Rohingya refugee camp

    The "big road" runs along the megacamp in Cox's Bazar District, where over 600,000 people live. © Vincenzo Livieri/MSF

    We live in an open prison. Life for a refugee is hellish, and every day is the same. Sometimes I bite myself to see if I can feel something and I have tried to commit suicide.
    Faruk, a Rohingya refugee

    In May 2020, the Bangladesh government began placing Rohingya refugees rescued from the sea to Bhasan Char, some 30 kilometres from the mainland. To date, over 3,000 people from Cox's Bazar have been relocated to the controversial island, a silty strip that did not exist two decades ago and is situated in a region where about 700,000 people have died in storms in the past 50 years. More Rohingya will likely face relocation soon as authorities claim the island has an estimated capacity to house 100,000 people. Independent humanitarian organisations have yet to gain access to the site, adding fuel to growing concerns about the living conditions.

    Happiness for the opening of water faucet.

    Happiness for the opening of water faucet. © Vincenzo Livieri/MSF

    A registered refugee from Nayapara camp, Cox’s Bazar

    Faruk (not his real name) is a registered refugee from Nayapara camp, Cox’s Bazar. © Farah Tanjee

    Rohingya refugees in Kutupalong megacamp

    "It's difficult to plan a future for our children." Rohingya refugee Bibi Jan sits at a tea stall with her five year old son, Fayezorahman, in Kutupalong megacamp. © Dalila Mahdawi/MSF

    For the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, the situation feels hopeless, as they continue to live in overcrowded, basic conditions, dealing with outbreaks of disease, and struggling with the traumas of all they have endured.

    Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Response to the Rohingya Crisis

    Bangladesh

    Since 1985, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been present in both the capital Dhaka and Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh.

    Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) massively increased its capacity to respond to the Rohingya refugee crisis following the influx of Rohingya in Bangladesh and launched a large emergency response in the Cox's Bazar area.

    In the first six months of the Rohingya crisis alone, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) treated more than 350,000 patients, including victims of rape, people with gunshot wounds and severe acute malnutrition. There were outbreaks of vaccine-preventable and long-forgotten diseases in the refugee camps.

    MSF also provides maternity care and mental healthcare, including individual mental health consultations for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.

    Map detailing the MSF response in Bangladesh, with specific COVID–19 treatment centres.

    Map detailing the MSF response in Bangladesh, with specific COVID–19 treatment centres. © Daniella Ritzau-Reid

    As COVID-19 swept around the world, MSF has been rapidly scaling up facilities across the district, while we have rolled out tailored training for all staff to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and manage the treatment of infected patients.

    The global health advice for COVID-19 is practically impossible to apply inside the camps.

    Social distancing measures are unrealistic when people live in overcrowded and flimsy shelters. 

    Malaysia

    To respond to the gap in services for this vulnerable group, MSF has been providing healthcare, health education, psychosocial support, and mental health counselling via community-based mobile clinics and a fixed clinic in Penang. MSF advocates for increased protection for refugees and refers vulnerable cases to UNHCR to assess their situation.

    MSF’s clinic in Butterworth treats up to 1,000 patients monthly. Rohingya and other refugees are faced with multiple barriers to access public healthcare and as such often depend on healthcare provision by MSF and other NGOs. Refugees pay significantly higher prices than locals in the public system, despite a discount based on the foreigner rate for those in possession of a UNHCR card. Those without documents risk being arrested and detained as a consequence of Circular 10/2001, which requires health care providers to report undocumented people, forcing them to delay seeking medical treatment from hospitals.

    Patients who seek care at MSF’s clinic include pregnant women in need of ante-natal care (ANC), or patients with non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, who depend on regular provision of medication which they cannot access through the public system. MSF also sees many victims of work accidents, as Rohingya often work in the black market economy, exposing them to exploitation, debt bondage and work accidents.

    MSF maintains close contacts with the public hospitals and local clinics in Penang. Besides medical referrals, MSF hosted workshops to discuss the refugee context in Malaysia. Local healthcare workers are made aware of the Rohingya refugees’ plight after being afflicted by violence in Myanmar, and how this may have affected their physical and mental health.

    In partnership with MERCY Malaysia and SUKA Society, MSF provides medical care in the immigration detention centres in Belantik and Juru respectively. MSF runs monthly mobile linics and upgraded the water and sanitation systems int these centres, where many asylum-seekers and undocumented migrants are held.

    The COVID-19 pandemic has further complicated access to health-care and protection for refugees and asylum-seekers. Anti-refugee sentiments as well as immigration raids have increased existing fears among the community and pushed them further into hiding. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, MSF has scaled up its support by distributing food and hygiene items, as well as COVID-19 health education in different languages, including Rohingya and Burmese. In partnership with R-vision, an online Rohingya news network with global coverage, the mission produced a COVID-19 health promotion campaign which was well received by tens of thousands Rohingya all over the world.

    In Rakhine State, Myanmar

    Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams are currently delivering healthcare to Muslim minority groups Rohingya and Kaman in four displacement camps in central Rakhine, and also in Sittwe. This is done through health outreach work and mobile clinics.

    Find out more

    Who are the Rohingya?

    The Rohingya are people from Rakhine state, Myanmar, which borders Bangladesh to the north. They are mostly Muslims, who had lived in the predominantly Buddhist country for centuries. The Myanmar authorities disputed this and declared them to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

    Before the military crackdown in August 2017, roughly 1.1 million Rohingya people lived in the country.

    Targeted violence

    The Rohingya fled by the hundreds of thousands after the Myanmar government ramped up military action against them, in retaliation to attacks claimed by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in 2017.

    The Rohingya journeyed to Cox's Bazar on foot, boats and sometimes wading through a river separating the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.

    This led to the Rohingya people being marked as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world by the United Nations in 2013.

    At least 9,000 Rohingya died between 25 August and 24 September 2017 according to surveys conducted by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). In very conservative estimates, at least 6,500 were killed, including 730 children below the age of five.

    It confirms reports by international news organisations of targetted violence which the Myanmar government continues to deny.

    Why are the Rohingya stateless?

    The Rohingya are considered foreigners following the introduction of a Citizenship Law in 1982. The law does not recognise them as one of the "national race."

    While the Myanmar government was offering citizenship through a "verification" exercise, the Rohingya people are reluctant to accept National Verification Card (NVC1) as despite holding it they are still unable to move freely within the Rakhine state or the country and given access to necessary services due to checkpoints, bureaucratic barriers, and other discriminatory practices.

    “We are not stateless. We are from Myanmar. Our ancestors are from Myanmar.”  – Abu Ahmad, 52-years-old, fled to Bangladesh to seek treatment for his daughters paralysis. 

    What is the Rohingya refugee crisis?

    A total of 745,000 Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh on August 25, 2017. Their arrival adds to thousands of their people who migrated to the refugee camps in previous years and are still living in difficult conditions.

    Today, the Cox's Bazar district is home to nearly a million refugees, making it the world's largest refugee camp.

    The Rohingya also risk their lives on boats across the Andaman sea to flee to other countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia and Laos.

    The mass displacement of people in this short period is the largest in the world of its kind in recent history.

    What is the current situation of the Rohingya?

    In Myanmar

    While hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people have fled to Bangladesh, over 600,000 remain in the country and are stateless.

    Those remaining are unable to leave without government permission and live in ghetto-like camps around Sittwe. The camps are built in 2012 but are poorly maintained. There is a lack of essential services and opportunities for the people, including freedom of movement, healthcare, state education and jobs.

    In Bangladesh

    The future of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh remains uncertain. They are barred from formal education, not allowed to work and have no way to go back to their home country.

    "Spending our lives in the camps is difficult; the area is small, and there is no space for the children to play.” – Abu Siddik lives in the refugee camp in Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh

    They live in an overcrowded camp, where they have to wait for hours to receive water, food, and fuel through communal distribution. The water is barely enough to drink or cook with, much less for additional handwashing.

    The inadequate and unhygienic living conditions have caused many of the prevailing medical conditions in the refugee camps, such as acute watery diarrhoea, respiratory tract infections, skin diseases and fevers of unknown origin.

    The COVID-19 pandemic outbreak has only worsened their situation. Extreme wind and rain from June to September make the refugee camps more vulnerable, with the only cyclone-proof building in the mega camp being MSF's Hospital on the Hill.

    There are now reports of Rohingya refugees being forcibly relocated to Bhasan Char.

    In Malaysia

    Rohingya refugees have been coming to Malaysia for decades, sometimes over land or by making the journey across the Andaman Sea on small and overcrowded boats. While the urban environment in Malaysia offers refugees and asylum seekers some anonymity, protection and safety nets are limited. Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which means that refugees and asylum seekers are effectively criminalised by domestic law.

    Rohingya who are in possession of a card from the UN refugee agency UNHCR - following assessment of their asylum-claim - have freedom of movement, but do not have access to legal jobs, education or equal access to healthcare. Those without documents risk being arrested and detained. UNHCR’s access to Immigration Detention Centres (IDCs) in the country is suspended since 2019, so some have been detained for months or even years.

    Future of the Rohingya?

    Long-term solutions are needed to resolve this long-standing Rohingya refugee crisis. The main problem is the lack of citizenship rights in Myanmar and the recognition of refugee status in Bangladesh and Malaysia.

    For the Rohingya refugees left languishing in Rakhine, MSF is particularly concerned about barriers to access healthcare due to restrictions on their freedom of movement. Humanitarian actors need independent access to assess and respond impartially to health needs.

    Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) believes it is critical that any return or repatriation to Myanmar only occurs if it is voluntary; if the wellbeing of Rohingya refugees is guaranteed; and the root causes of the violence have been addressed. This means addressing the ongoing discrimination and denial of fundamental human rights.