Clutching an empty rice sack, Rohingya mother-of-seven Sara Khatun says she has nothing left to feed her children.
After three weeks sleeping under a thin plastic sheet held up by bamboo poles, her son and daughter, aged about eight and 10, look pinched and exhausted.
“My children are getting thinner and thinner,” says the 33-year-old refugee from Myanmar. “If they don’t get help soon, they will die.”
Some 429,000 Rohingyas have fled Myanmar since a violent crackdown on the Rohingya community began a month ago following a series of attacks on security posts.
The vast majority, like Sara and her family, are now living in informal camps and spontaneous settlements that have sprung up in Bangladesh, clinging to hillsides and strung out along busy roads.
Their need for food, shelter, access to healthcare and child protection is particularly acute.
“It’s not safe here for them here.”
While barely clinging to life on the outskirts of Kutupalong refugee camp, one of two formal refugee camps operated by the Bangladesh government, Sara is – incredibly – more fortunate than many.
Along the road south from the camp, single mother Agida, 35, and her four children sleep rough on the mud-churned verge, strewn with discarded trash and clothes.
She survives on occasional aid packages handed out or tossed from trucks by private donors, and by begging from passing cars. Exposed to the monsoon downpours, she is also terrified for her children.
“It’s not safe here for them here,” she says with a desperation in her voice nearing panic. “Someone could take them while I sleep.”
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is stepping up all efforts to safeguard the most vulnerable refugees – like Sara, Agida and their families – caught up in a tragic crisis unprecedented in the region in decades.
“People have fled unspeakable violence, and their needs are enormous,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi as he toured Kutupalong camp and the sprawling new adjacent extension today during a visit to Bangladesh.
“Despite huge challenges at the beginning, there was a phenomenal outpouring of local generosity and support,” Grandi added. “International support is also now being stepped up, under the leadership of the government. But these efforts must be accelerated and sustained.”
At the start of a three-day visit to Bangladesh, Grandi walked through the existing camp, which was founded in 1992 in response to previous outflows from Myanmar, and has schools, health and community centres.
Accompanied by UNHCR field staff and Bangladeshi officials, Grandi also walked to an adjoining site recently assigned for the new arrivals, where UNHCR staff were today delivering cooking equipment, sleeping mats, solar lamps and other essential relief items to an initial 3,500 families selected by community leaders.
At the request of Bangladeshi authorities, the agency is also putting up hundreds of family tents and distributing thousands of plastic sheets to help shelter refugees like Sara. The UN Refugee Agency, with the help of backers such as the UAE and the courier service UPS, has now sent four planes loaded with relief items into the country.
With heavy monsoon rains lashing Bangladesh, that help cannot come soon enough for Rohingya mother Tahera Begum, 22, whose extended family live in a dirt-floored shack in a precarious settlement south of Kutupalong.
To escape flooding, they had carved a niche for their shelter in a rain-swept hillside. As she slept, her six-month old son Mohammad Sohail wriggled out and slid down the hillside. By sheer chance he was unhurt.
Grandi asked mothers gathered in the makeshift camp what their children needed most. “Everything,” they replied.
* Additional reporting/editing by Kitty McKinsey
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