Rebel groups in the Congo. Religious radicals in Iraq. Mercenaries in Darfur. Starvation in North Korea. Natural disasters in Haiti and Chile. Every region in the world has something to run from, and the people running from them are dispersed far and wide. Refugees, while pitied, are often treated with a mild neglect, or sometimes with disdain or outright hostility. Still, many of them find the means to survive in less dangerous conditions. Some try to make a life for themselves by emigrating, while others do their best to scrape a life together in refugee camps dotting the borders of their more peaceful neighbors. The public health and medical challenges in refugee camps are many and daunting: unsanitary conditions, no running water, little to no food security, scant medical care.
The Rohingya are suffering from these conditions perhaps more acutely than most. They are an ethnic Muslim group from Myanmar, but they are not recognized as one of the country’s 135 “national races” by the military junta. About 750,000 currently live in Myanmar, where they are oppressed by the military and not allowed to own property, vote, travel, or marry; one million have fled persecution and emigrated to other parts of the world.1 There are refugees in each of the country’s five neighbors – China, India, Laos, Thailand, and Bangladesh – with the largest refugee camps in Bangladesh.2 While 28,000 in the official Kutupalong camp have recognized refugee status in Bangladesh,3 another 220,000 are illegal immigrants with no official status and no assistance.3,4 Many live in a makeshift camp just down the road from Kutupalong with no water, power, schools, or medicine.1 When Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) made its initial assessment of the camp in March of 2009, they found that 90% of the more than 20,000 residents were severely food-insecure; malnutrition and mortality rates were past emergency thresholds; and people had little access to safe drinking water, sanitation, or medical care.3,5 MSF immediately began offering basic health care and treating malnourished children and has now established a primary health care program for the refugees. MSF and Action contre la Faim (Action against Hunger) are the only international NGOs working at the makeshift camp.5The treatment the Rohingya face in Bangladesh and elsewhere isn’t much better than in Myanmar. The Bangladeshi government has been accused of blocking food aid, conducting arbitrary arrests, beating and harassing the unrecognized refugees.3,4 Reports have come in of the Thai military conducting “pushbacks” – rounding up Rohingya, putting them on a boat, and pushing them out to sea.1 But the truth is that no one wants them. Bangladeshi officials, denying allegations of abuse, insist that “[w]e are the victims. The Burmese people have been kicked out of their country and we gave them shelter.”4
More information on the Rohingya and refugee health
Rohingya in Bangladesh: Unrecognized, Unprotected, and Unassisted (MSF slideshow)
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
Forced Migration Review – published three times a year in English, Arabic, Spanish, and French by the Refugee Studies Centre of the Department of International Development, University of Oxford.