Picture 2,300 football fields side-by-side, home to hundreds of thousands of people living under bamboo and plastic sheeting — no flushing toilets or running water to be found.
More than two-thirds are women and children, many of whom were victims of sexual violence or some continuing form of exploitation. Much of the area used to be forested but the trees have been cut to make way for the shelters, so the occasional rampaging wild elephant tramples through.
That's how Michael Dunford describes what's become of Bangladesh's lush, southeastern countryside since late August when 600,000 traumatized Rohingya Muslims fled Myanmar in what's been described by many — including Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland — as ethnic cleansing. They've swelled the ranks of fleeing Rohingya in Bangladesh to 900,000.
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That's just some of the scene that awaits Bob Rae, Canada's newly appointed special envoy to the Rohingya refugee crisis. The former Ontario premier and ex-interim Liberal leader arrived Wednesday in the South Asian region as Myanmar's fleeing Muslim population continues to seek refuge in Bangladesh, already one of the world's poorest countries.
"The population is the equivalent of the size of Washington, D.C., yet there is nothing there at the moment," said Dunford, the emergency co-ordinator for the UN World Food Program in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
"All of us are trying to remember when anything on this scale happened previously," he said. "It's probably not since the mid-90s with the Great Lakes and Rwanda that we have seen anything on this scale."
Reports of sexual assaults
Conrad Sauve, president of the Canadian Red Cross, described other formidable environmental hurdles: it's now the rainy season, which means the area is caked in mud.
"This is a place prone to hurricanes as well," Sauve added.
In a series of interviews, Sauve, Dunford and other international aid workers described the speed and surprise of the squalor that has engulfed Bangladesh since the Aug. 25 influx of Rohingya Muslims, triggered by insurgent attacks on police posts in Myanmar. That led to a brutal response by the country's armed forces, aided by Buddhist mobs.
Aid agencies say 70 per cent of those fleeing are women and children. There are many reports of young girls and their mothers facing sexual assaults as they fled, as their villages burned while they watched their husbands killed. After days of hiking through the wilderness, they are arriving in Bangladesh emaciated and traumatized.
Sauve recalled meeting a 10-year-old boy at a Red Cross field hospital earlier this week who had arrived with his two-year-old brother — and no other family member. After giving him some medical attention, the Red Cross dispatched a social worker to follow up and see where the two boys were living.
"We found out who the adult was and whether this was a safe environment for the child," Sauve said, since unaccompanied children are often targets for sexual exploitation and cheap labour.
Iljitsj Wemerman, a Dutch member of CARE International's rapid response team, has covered crises in Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere over the last decade, but he's been struck by what he's seen in his first month in Bangladesh.
"All these crises, they're very bad, but what I see here, the number of children, and the mothers, it's really shocking," said Wemerman.
"You can see it in their faces: they've experienced a lot of things. They are traumatized. They don't know what's going to happen."
The indignities continue, said Wemerman, who pointed out that 200 people are being forced to share a single latrine —makeshift bathrooms that aren't particularly private.
That is forcing some women to avoid drinking water during the day "because they fear going to the latrines, which do not provide any privacy whatsoever."
A predominant conversation taking place on the ground right now is how an eventual transition to a more permanent set-up can be accomplished given that the Rohingya won't be going home any time soon, said Sauve.
"What we're hearing from the government is the idea of building a mega-camp, a city basically. It's not clear when that will happen. The challenge is again is around sanitation, which is a big issue."
Fred Witteveen, the Bangladesh country director for World Vision, said the unfolding humanitarian crisis — "instant North York without an infrastructure" — needs to be addressed diplomatically, and Rae's presence could help.
"It's important for him the see the reality on the ground. It really helps to form a picture of a desperate situation," said Witteveen, a long-time Toronto resident.
"It will inform whatever conversations he has at a very high level."