Community ties help Rohingya cope with hardships in Bangladesh
Refugees have multiple concerns about camp safety, food and children, new UNHCR assessment shows. But they also draw strength from community bonds.
COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh – The violence that forced over 640,000 Rohingya from their Myanmar homes left Sahar, 18, without kin. Her mother, father and brother were all burned alive before she escaped the carnage with little more than her life.
Sahar now lives alone in the teeming Kutupalong refugee settlement, just one of many refugees left exposed by events way beyond their control. She tries to pass her days in the shadows, where she worries about her future, and whether she will ever marry.
To better understand the concerns of refugees like Sahar, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has just completed a survey of over 500 residents of Kutupalong, Nayapara and Kerontoli/Chakmarkul camps and settlements.
It showed that cramped and deprived living conditions present numerous concerns among the refugees. But despite the hardships, they generally felt safe in their environment compared to the situation they fled, and often call on those around them for support.
Indeed, Sahar personifies both aspects of camp life. Her nights are spent alone in her bamboo-tarpaulin shelter, fearful of venturing into the darkness. But during the day, she relies for companionship on her immediate neighbour, a widow with two children. They share menial tasks like fetching water and wood, or carrying food.
“I get so worried, but I feel there is help if I need it."
In some ways, Sahar is fortunate. She has an outlet. She also has a World Food Programme food card. And the local community leader, or mazhis, is keeping an eye out. “I get so worried, but I feel there is help if I need it,” she said, almost breaking into a smile.
The assessment covered both sexes, and included community leaders, single females, the elderly and the disabled. Conducted with partners last month, it was designed to locate the most vulnerable cases, inform UNHCR’s programmes and prioritise future interventions.
Findings highlighted concerns including insecurity at night, given weak shelters and a lack of lighting; fear of robbery and child kidnapping; a lack of interaction with host communities, which were nonetheless considered supportive; and a reliance on community leaders for information.
In addition, access to sanitation was limited, leading to queues and overfilling for latrines, and anxiety among some females about sufficient private bathing spaces.
Marzia, a widow with three children, needs to walk several hundred metres around a fetid bog to access a women-only bathing facility. That means she only washes once a week, twice at most. And there is just one female-only latrine in her immediate area. “Your privacy is restricted,” she said. “At night, we don’t have enough light.”
Long queues and distribution lines to secure basic necessities were considered among the most difficult aspects of life. “We cook before sundown,” Marzia said, “but we don’t have enough utensils, or spices, fish, meat and vegetables for the kids.” Children, meanwhile, are engaged in labour, accessing distant water points and forests for firewood, then acting as porters, UNHCR found. Parents and children crave access to education and recreational space.
"At night, we don’t have enough light ... we cook before sundown."
Limited information on health services was another concern. Many of those with chronic conditions had not taken medication as services were distant. There are continued feelings of depression and rejection, especially among the elderly and disabled; youths are preoccupied, uncertain about the future.
Despite all these concerns and privations, being forced to flee en masse appears to have bolstered social cohesion. Community members, especially women and youths, said they would share food, and support each other with daily tasks including helping the ill to the clinic and cooking.
UNHCR is acting on the findings and plans to establish better information points and reinforce response staff and partnerships; strengthen two-way communication on services; create community centres, from where psychological support can be delivered; add facilities for chronic and mental health problems; and raise awareness about sexual and gender-based violence and child protection.
UNHCR is already revising its distribution system to reduce lines and offer direct delivery to the incapacitated, while providing alternatives to firewood to address child labour and environmental concerns and adding bathing facilities and latrines for women.
Other plans include providing upgraded shelter kits, with locks; adding communal lights; growing plants and reinforcing banks to prevent landslides; and offering skills-building activities.
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