'The scale is just vast': Authorities, aid workers in Bangladesh overwhelmed by Rohingya refugees

The movement of Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh is an exodus of vast proportions that has bewildered even the most seasoned aid workers, writes Nahlah Ayed.

More than 430,000 Rohingya from Myanmar now sheltering in Bangladesh

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees have arrived in Bangladesh from Myanmar in the past month. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

Khanon Zahed survived a killing campaign at home and an epic cross-border escape, only to end up lying on a dirty sheet on the floor of a hallway at a Bangladesh hospital.

Five-year-old Zahed is just one of the more than 430,000 Rohingya from Myanmar now sheltering in Bangladesh — an exodus of vast proportions that in the span of only one month has overwhelmed the authorities here and bewildered even the most seasoned aid workers.

It is an exceptional population shift that leaves almost all involved dependent on aid in already-poor Bangladesh for the foreseeable future, living in makeshift tent camps as far as the eye can see.

"The scale is just vast," said Sylke Buhr of the World Food Programme, which was distributing rice in the camps on Monday. "There are so many people here, most of them women and very young children."

Countless challenges

Ravaged by the wounds of persecution, violence and the trauma of escape, the inhabitants now live at the mercy of a whole new set of challenges: basic housing, a lack of public health infrastructure, exposure to possible disease outbreaks, heat, late-season monsoon weather — and acres of mud.

The Rohingya refugees carry anything they can into their new life in Bangladesh. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

On top of all that, there is apprehension from locals, a shortage of latrines and tens of thousands of children with no schools to attend. There is also the unpredictable: Two displaced people were killed and three others were injured in one camp last week after being trampled by wild elephants.

It is within this vast sea of distress, hunger and heat exhaustion that Zahed sleeps face down at a hospital in the nearby city of Cox's Bazar, watched over by two half-dressed siblings.

Her mother spoke and then wept about how Zahed's father ended up in prison in Myanmar — accused, like many Rohingya, of being a foreigner from Bangladesh.

The injuries on the girl's face and body, meanwhile, speak to the chaos of the past month. She was hit by an army vehicle on the road near the camp where she now lives.

Rohingya girl in Bangladesh hospital

5 years ago
Duration 0:21
Five-year-old Khanon Zahed was hit by an army vehicle on the road near the camp where she lives

Hers is not an isolated case.

Haphazard food distribution and the sheer number of people on the roads traversing the camps near the Myanmar border has clogged the area, causing accidents, injuries and deaths.

These past few days, the Bangladesh army has moved in to help contain the chaos. Soldiers in uniform arrived in trucks to man the roads and streamline traffic. Police and paramilitary forces have joined in, some wielding sticks in the bazaars on the main road to keep the tuktuks and aid trucks moving swiftly despite the steady stream of humanity on foot.

Some people are helping organize distribution points to hand out privately donated aid.

"We started the [relief distribution], but much more discipline is needed," said Mukhlesur Rahman Akand, a government deputy secretary who is monitoring the relief distribution. "That's why we're working with [the army] and they have come to make the situation better."

Many pregnant women, new mothers

In the midst of all this, local and international aid organizations have struggled to scale up, calling for volunteers and donations from around the world.

Medical teams travel up and down the road and into the camps, seeing thousands of people who need attention. Some doctors who have been volunteering in the camps bring extra medicines to the Rohingya unit at the hospital where Zahed is staying — a unit that has a newly minted sign but no beds.

Medical teams travel up and down the road and into the camps, seeing thousands of people who need attention. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

It is a hospital that serves the poorest of the poor among Bangladesh citizens.

Buhr said another major concern is the huge number of pregnant women or new mothers arriving in the camps. One estimate put the number of pregnant women who arrived in Bangladesh since August at 16,000.

Then there are the newborns.

"Missing out on the right kind of food during that critical phase of life can have serious repercussions, and of course in a situation like this can compromise the immune system and make them vulnerable to other diseases," Buhr said.

'What else can I do?'

Crossing the border on Sunday was Sakina Khatun, carried in a hammock by two men, holding a baby daughter born overnight.

The child doesn't yet have a name, but she has already inherited a difficult short-term future — if she's lucky, started under a tarpaulin that keeps out the rain.

This Rohingya mother is carrying a baby girl who was born during her arduous trek from Myanmar. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

Back south down the highway, near the Kutupalong camp, World Food Programme trucks unload sacks of rice into a snaking line-up of people who had been waiting in the sticky heat for hours.

There's some pushing and shoving, and in the high temperatures arguments break out.

Organizers hoped to hand out 25-kilogram sacks of rice to 3,000 people, with the idea that they should last two weeks. It's not a lot for a household of 10, like Mohammed Idriss has — that's after his mother and father were killed in the violence at home.

Laila Begum's village in Myanmar was burned down, so she is in Bangladesh seeking refuge with her family of 11. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

He sat in the sun on Monday for five hours, without anything to eat or drink, "because I don't have any money," he says.

Laila Begum also needs rice, even though her family of 11 received some 10 days ago.

Her village back home was burned down. "There I was poor. Here I am also poor."

So she waited since sunrise in the hope she might get another sack of rice.

"We don't have any grain left in the house. There are so many kids around, what else can I do?"

Ayed: 'They have never seen anything quite like this'

5 years ago
Duration 2:51
CBC's Nahlah Ayed reports on the plight of the Rohingya from the Myanmar/Bangladesh border


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.