Don’t forget Rohingya, aid workers urge, one year since latest Burma exodus

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Aid workers have begged Britain not to forget almost one million Rohingya stranded in makeshift refugee settlements a year after the most recent mass exodus from Burma.

Fiona MacGregor has been in southern Bangladesh since December last year with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), after hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled violence last August.

The UN agency is one of the biggest medical providers in the camps, having carried out more than half a million consultations, and is also co-ordinating the management of the weather-beaten site.

Ms MacGregor, from Edinburgh, praised the “extraordinary” response of the international community, which helped protect the Rohingya during months of heavy monsoon rains, but said more funding is needed to avert another disaster.

Speaking from Cox’s Bazar, near the camps, she said: “We are desperately short of funding, and a year on … for me the message is ‘Don’t forget Rohingya, don’t turn your back on them’, because a year ago the international response was so generous, and the government of Bangladesh and local communities have been extraordinary in their generosity in the way they’ve welcomed people in, and we’ve done all this work, but if we can’t keep on doing the work then we’re just facing another disaster again.”

She went on: “In a response of this size, everything is reliant on everything else, and what you have is a city-size population that just wasn’t here a year ago, and we’re still putting in the latrines and the drains and the roadways and all the things that make life safer … but if we don’t get more funding those services will stop.

“There’s been so much done but if we aren’t able to keep working at this level, there’s a severe danger that we just go back and this population that have survived so much and showed such resilience are once again facing another tragedy.”

The recent spasm of violence in Burma began when Rohingya insurgents staged a series of attacks on August 25 security outposts and other targets, sparking a crackdown described by UN officials as “ethnic cleansing”.

Some 919,000 Rohingya were estimated to be living in Cox’s Bazar as of August 2018 – more than 700,000 of them arriving since August 25 last year.

A shack dug into a hillside in the Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh (Jemma Crew/PA)
A shack dug into a hillside in the Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh (Jemma Crew/PA)

This, Ms MacGregor said, was testament to the vast amount of preparation in the lead-up to the rainy season, which included moving people who were most at risk to safer ground.

The Red Cross is also calling for “greater certainty” around future funding, with basic needs “barely” being met one year on from the violence.

It said: “This response is vast, it is expensive, and agencies on the ground need the security of long-term funding in order to provide long-term and appropriate support.”

Julia Brothwell, who spent three months managing a mass sanitation programme for the British Red Cross, returned from Bangladesh a few weeks ago.

She said refugees were “well aware” of how long they had been in the camps, where the atmosphere was one of resignation.

She said: “It seems very far away and it’s perhaps not of personal interest to people living in the UK – unlike other refugee populations where we see they are actively trying to get to Europe, or to the UK specifically, there’s a level of interest that that generates – but with the refugees from Myanmar, they just want to go home and they just need somewhere safe to live until they can do that.”

“They are living in this camp, they are making the best of it, but their ultimate goal is to return from where they came,” she added.

The Department for International Development said the UK had been at the forefront of the response, contributing £129 million since last August.

International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt said: “There is no doubt that this is a protracted crisis and the British public have enabled hundreds of thousands of lives to be saved through their taxes, and through huge sums raised in voluntary donations.

“I want to thank all who have stepped up and donated or worked to bring hope to so many.”

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