Since August 2017, more than 730,000 men, women and children have fled the violence perpetrated against them in Myanmar to seek refuge in Bangladesh. With almost one million Rohingya refugees, the refugee camp in the Cox's Bazar region is now the largest in the world. Helvetas has been actively engaged in supporting the refugees since the start of the crisis and is helping to improve their living conditions.
During the first acute phase of emergency relief, Helvetas distributed hygiene kits. Since then, Helvetas has been active in many different areas in cooperation with local and international partners, for example in providing sanitation, including the construction of 320 latrines which are now used by around 10,000 people. Thanks to a simple conversion unit, the latrines generate biogas which supplies energy predominantly to the communal kitchens.
«This is an important change. Since Helvetas built this kitchen, we haven't had to worry about whether we will be able to find wood for cooking,» explains Nasrin (name changed). «We used to have to walk eight to ten kilometres to look for wood in the hills, or just buy it. We can now buy vegetables and potatoes with the money we've saved.»
The Helvetas project, which is supported by the independent charity Swiss Solidarity, not only helps to improve the health of refugees, it also promotes environmental protection, as families no longer have to search for wood, which was becoming increasingly scarce. Moreover, the sanitation facilities, combined with hygiene courses, are preventing drinking water from being contaminated by faeces and diseases like cholera from spreading.
Helvetas is responsible for administering three camps with a total of 100,000 refugees on behalf of UNHCR. The aim is to improve the transmission of information between the communities and the different organisations represented in the camps in order to ensure that the relief measures have maximum impact. On the infrastructure side, Helvetas is making preparations for monsoon season and maintenance. This includes helping 1,300 refugees who were living in particularly at-risk areas to move to safer locations.
Helvetas also champions the safety of women and children. Committees for women, young people and religious leaders were set up to ensure a better flow of information between communities and the humanitarian organisations on the ground. Their task is to relay important information from other women living in their area.
Women talk in meetings about issues such as domestic violence or difficulties related to their periods – for example, where they can dry their sanitary towels discretely, given the lack of space in their shelters. «The participants have the opportunity here to learn something new and to find out about subjects they have perhaps never spoken about or know nothing about. In one of these workshops, the participants discussed their menstrual cycle. They had no idea how the biological process works but were very curious and keen to learn,» explains Mostafa, who is responsible for coordinating safety measures on the ground, and who also trains the volunteers.
With the support of Swiss Solidarity, Helvetas is examining the possibilities for refugee families of growing their own vegetables – climber and creeper varieties, for example, such as beans and pumpkins – on the roofs of their shelters. This would improve the refugees' food supply and would be a step towards reducing their dependence on humanitarian aid. The project also involves local families, who have welcomed the refugees with open arms, as it is important to prevent conflict.
Since the camp has grown extremely rapidly, and unchecked, some essential groundwork is required: on behalf of UNICEF, Helvetas is mapping the camp. The educational needs of the Rohingyas must be identified, for example.
Helvetas will continue to advocate for the protection of the weakest and most vulnerable people against dangers such as human trafficking, sexual violence and poor hygiene. The women's committees have already chosen the discussion topics for their workshops in 2019. These include non-violent communication, human rights and nutrition.