© Patrick Rohr / Helvetas

The Rohingya Refugee Crisis in Bangladesh

© Patrick Rohr / Helvetas

More than 670'000 children, women and men fled in 2017 across the border from Myanmar to Bangladesh. Helvetas is responding to the world's fastest growing refugee crisis.

Author: Barbara Dietrich

We were all shocked last September when we heard the devastating news that a wave of children, women and men were fleeing across the border from Myanmar to Cox Bazar in Bangladesh on a daily basis. During that month, an average of nearly 120,000 people crossed the Myanmar-Bangladesh border each week. 

We saw pictures of countless people – including unaccompanied children – with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Their faces still bore the horror of violence they had witnessed. They could still see smoke in the distance, from burned villages they had escaped. The needs of these people and the magnitude of the crisis were, and still are, enormous. So we at Helvetas decided to respond.

Today, close to a million Rohingyas have sought refuge in Bangladesh – more than half of whom are children. This unprecedented number of people crossing the border has caused a large-scale humanitarian crisis. Children, women and men live in makeshift tents in overcrowded settlements, where overflowing latrines and contaminated water pose serious health risks.

The Helvetas Response

As an initial humanitarian response, Helvetas distributed essential hygiene kits which included soap, antiseptic, water buckets, diapers, underwear and sandals. We also worked closely with community-based volunteers to communicate the importance of clean water and good hygiene.
As an additional measure we cooperate with a local partner organization, the NGO-Forum, to construct communal latrines connected to biogas kitchens. This serves to improve the hygiene and sanitation situation, reduce the accumulation of sludge, and prevent deforestation from the collection of firewood.

ACTED, which like Helvetas is a member of Alliance 2015, approached Helvetas to engage in joint activities because of our past experience and status as a registered INGO in Bangladesh. For  UNHCR, Helvetas is currently partnering with ACTED/REACH for site (camp) and information management. Additionally, Helvetas supports UNICEF to map the water and sanitation needs of newly-established refugee sites.
Bangladesch_Rohingya | © Helvetas
© Helvetas
© Zahid Hasan
© Zahid Hasan

Latrines and Biogas kitchens

Helvetas is building communal latrines and biogas kitchens in schools, child-friendly spaces, clinics, reception or transit centres, and in other public places, benefitting more than 22,000 people.

Helvetas is constructing 40 latrine blocks of five to eight cabins each, with respective slurry pits and connections to biogas plants. Additionally, 12 connected communal kitchens with two burners each will be realized. This construction will be accompanied by campaigns dedicated to hygiene promotion, food handling and food storage.

The project contributes to improve the sanitation of the most vulnerable people through social infrastructure, communal latrines and kitchens, in a sustainable manner, considering a low-cost, effective innovative solution (biogas production). It will also contribute to public health, as latrine use reduces the rate of open defecation and the corresponding risk of disease. In addition, biogas production for fuelling the cooking of food will also improve the health situation through better nutrition. At the same time, it reduces the firewood consumption and thus deforestation, which can lead to landslides and has a negative impact on the environment.
© Kieran McConville/Concern Worldwide
© Kieran McConville/Concern Worldwide
© Kieran McConville/Concern Worldwide
© Kieran McConville/Concern Worldwide
© Barbara Dietrich / Helvetas
© Barbara Dietrich / Helvetas
© Wikimedia Commons
For Helvetas, working with like-minded local partners is crucial for implementing activities in a sustainable way. This approach is also reflected in the Grand Bargain agreement, an initiative under the Agenda for Humanity, with the aim “to get more means into the hands of people in need”.

The affected people, the refugees, along with the host community, are participating in project implementation. Our Bangladeshi Partner, the NGO-Forum, has worked within the Rohingya camps for years and has already piloted the biogas kitchens connected to latrines. Together with our emergency WASH expert, Helvetas has full confidence in this innovative solution to address the challenges of faecal waste management. 

Sustainable Emergency Interventions

In humanitarian interventions, Helvetas keeps in mind a long-term view. As Dr Saleemul Huq, Director of International Centre for Climate Change and Development and Helvetas partner, writes in the Daily Star: “While the immediate humanitarian assistance is paramount, some attention needs to be given to the environmental impact as the demand for dwellings and firewood for cooking will put a lot of pressure on the surrounding forest area.”

Therefore, whenever an effective, low-cost solution that serves the crucial needs of the affected people and reliefs the pressure on the environment can be found, it should be realised. Thus, biogas kitchens are a good solution to ensure nutrition for people without using firewood.  Likewise, Helvetas plans to address its work with the people in need in a resilient way, to look for solutions which help people to move from dependence on humanitarian relief towards development. Helvetas' long-term experiences in enabling the poor and disadvantaged to profit from the economic growth help us to develop appropriate interventions.

Better coordination – better results

Given the scale of the crisis, it may take some time until durable solutions can be found, which are politically and humanitarianly acceptable. In the meantime, Helvetas is emphasizing on strong coordination mechanisms between all humanitarian actors and close cooperation with the Government authorities.
Helvetas and its partners actively participate in coordination activities. Through the partnership with REACH - we can significantly contribute to identify the specific needs of the vulnerable communities in Cox Bazar. For example, this website shows how the camp and needs have expanded in almost no time.

Uncertain future

Our team in Bangladesh, together with all its valuable partners, tries its best to contribute to reduce the suffering of the people in Cox’s Bazar. At the same time, reports from the UN and others are making their way to broader international communities, and the rest of the world is starting to get a sense of this unbelievable terror. However, the government of Myanmar fully rejects the reports, while the future of the Rohingya remains as uncertain as ever.

What is certain for now, though, is that almost one million people are living in extremely precarious conditions in the camps at Cox’s Bazar, and monsoon season is on its way. With it comes the possibility that natural disaster will wreak havoc on this ecologically fragile zone. Beyond the usual dangers that come with flooding and landslides, cyclones, which usually reach the Bay of Bengal from March to July, would exacerbate an already unstable situation.

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