Since Aug. 25, 2017, about 700,000 people from Myanmar have fled to Bangladesh because of extreme violence in northern Rakhine state, on the country’s western Bay of Bengal coast. Most of the Myanmar refugees identify as Rohingya, a Muslim minority ethnic group, in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. Flooding into camps near the town of Cox’s Bazar, they joined more than 200,000 people who escaped to Bangladesh years earlier.
Aid agencies are struggling to adequately serve 1.3 million people who are dependent on aid, including those in local communities. Monsoon rains and the likelihood of cyclones from April to October threaten the lives of refugee families in the squalid, overcrowded camps, including almost half a million children. Many refugees brought little with them and are dependent on humanitarian aid for shelter, food, clothing, and healthcare. During the monsoon season, they face possible floods and landslides as well as disease outbreaks due to poor sanitation.
History of the Rohingya refugees
1948: After Burma’s independence from British rule, a Muslim rebellion erupts in Rakhine state, with people demanding equal rights and an autonomous area. The rebellion is eventually defeated.
1962: Military rule begins in Burma.
1977 to 1978: Some 200,000 ethnic Muslims identifying as Rohingya flee to refugee camps in Bangladesh.
1982: A new citizenship law identifies 135 national ethnic groups, excluding the Rohingya, effectively rendering them stateless.
1989 to 1991: A military crackdown follows a popular uprising. Burma is renamed Myanmar. An additional 250,000 refugees flee to Bangladesh.
1992: The Myanmar and Bangladesh governments agree to repatriate refugees. Hundreds of thousands of people return to Myanmar over several years.
2003: Two of 20 refugee camps remain in Bangladesh. U.N. studies show widespread malnutrition in the camps.
2012: Religious violence flares in Rakhine, leaving many people homeless. More than 100,000 people flee to Malaysia.
2014: In Myanmar’s first census in 30 years, the Rohingya are still not included as an ethnic group.
2016: Military action follows an attack on a border post in which police offers were killed. During the crackdown, about 87,000 people fled to Bangladesh.
2017: Escalated violence
- August: Violence increases in Rakhine state among ethnic groups and Myanmar military forces, triggering a massive exodus of people to Bangladesh.
- September: The U.N. refugee agency declares the Myanmar refugee crisis to be a major emergency and scales up its response.
- October: More than 600,000 refugees have arrived in Bangladesh.
- November: Myanmar and Bangladesh agree to start repatriating refugees within the next two months.
2018: Facing insecurity
- January: The agreed start date for repatriation passes without action.
- April: U.N. Security Council envoys visit Myanmar and Bangladesh to observe needs and conditions.
- April to October: Monsoon and cyclone seasons increase hazards for refugees living in stick-and-bamboo tents in camps.
World Vision’s work in Myanmar and Bangladesh
World Vision has served in Bangladesh since 1970. Early efforts mainly focused on disaster response following a cyclone in the coastal regions. Today, World Vision directly reaches about 5 million children and adults through sponsorship and other programs.
In Myanmar, World Vision began operations in 1991. Child-focused programs help families with health, livelihoods, education and child protection, including reintegration support for trafficked returnees and released former child soldiers.
World Vision has served more than 178,000 refugees in Bangladesh since the crisis began in September 2017.
- Shelter kits and household items were distributed that include tarpaulins, rope, blankets, mats, and kitchen sets.
- Food packages were distributed to 135,250 people.
- Nutrition services screened more than 12,000 children under age 5 for acute malnutrition. More than 11,000 pregnant and breastfeeding women received counseling on hygiene and learned about best nutrition practices for infants and young children.
- Water and sanitation services include installing 54 deep-tube wells that furnish clean water for 54,000 people and constructing more than 1,300 latrines benefitting 67,000 people. World Vision has also provided jerry cans, hygiene kits, and water purification tablets.
FAQs: What you need to know about Myanmar refugees in Bangladesh
Explore frequently asked questions about the Rohingya people, why they are fleeing Myanmar, and learn how you can help Myanmar refugees in Bangladesh.
- Fast facts: Myanmar refugees in Bangladesh
- Who are the Rohingya? Why did they flee Myanmar?
- How can I help refugees from Myanmar?
- What are the refugees’ living conditions?
- What dangers will refugee children face during the monsoon season?
Fast facts: Myanmar refugees in Bangladesh
The U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees describes the Myanmar refugee crisis as “the most urgent refugee emergency in the world.” Here are facts you need to know:
- Of nearly 900,000 Myanmar refugees in Bangladesh camps and settlements, about 700,000 have arrived since August 2017.
- About 1.3 million people — both refugees and local community members — need humanitarian aid because of the crisis.
- From April through October, heavy monsoon rains and possible cyclones will pound the overcrowded refugee camps in Bangladesh.
- Myanmar and Bangladesh governments are still negotiating terms for families to be repatriated to Myanmar. Realistically, this may take years. In the meantime, children and their families are living in unhealthy, dangerous conditions with limited access to basic services.
Who are the Rohingya? Why did they flee Myanmar?
The Rohingya people belong to a Muslim ethnic minority group of about one million people in Myanmar, which has a total population of 52 million. They live in the country’s northern Rakhine state that borders Bangladesh and India. The Rohingya were not among the 135 officially recognized ethnic groups included in Myanmar’s 2014 census. Essentially stateless, the Rohingya consider themselves under threat, without recourse to legal redress.
Armed conflict between minority groups and government military forces has gone on for decades in Myanmar. It accelerated significantly in August 2017 in Rakhine state, causing more Rohingya people and others to flee. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres described the situation to the Security Council in September as “the world’s fastest-developing refugee emergency, and a humanitarian and human rights nightmare.”
How can I help refugees from Myanmar?
Receiving humanitarian assistance is a life or death matter for most of the world’s refugees, half of whom are children.
- Pray for mothers, fathers, and children who struggle to survive as refugees.
- Give to World Vision’s refugee crisis fund to help provide for their needs.
What are the refugees’ living conditions?
Refugees from Myanmar living in Bangladeshi camps are suffering from psycho-social conditions and physical illnesses that spread easily in overcrowded, unhygienic camps. With such a high concentration of people, any disease outbreak has the potential to kill thousands.
Diarrhea, acute jaundice syndrome, and respiratory infections are common in both adults and children. Acute watery diarrhea is especially dangerous in combination with malnutrition, which is rampant among the refugee population. Less than three percent of refugees were immunized in Myanmar, so they are highly vulnerable to preventable diseases such as measles.
Families receive basic food supplies from U.N. agencies and NGOs. About 12,200 metric tons of are needed each month to sustain the refugee population in Bangladesh. Basic food distributions include rice, lentils, and oil. It is difficult to eat the same thing day-in and day-out, but families don’t have the money to buy fresh fruit and vegetables to supplement their diets.
What dangers are refugee children facing during the monsoon season?
Refugee children are generally at high risk of disease and malnutrition, physical harm and violence. During the monsoon season, conditions could get much worse. Here are some of the hazards they face:
- Disease outbreaks: The World Health Organization has reported outbreaks of measles and diphtheria among children under age 5.
- Malnutrition: With malnutrition rates at acute emergency levels, any outbreak of disease could quickly claim the lives of thousands of malnourished children. According to the Inter-Sector Coordination Group’s report, about 39,000 children under age 5 need treatment for severe acute malnutrition and about 118,000 children need treatment for moderate acute malnutrition. This situation may worsen as aid agencies struggle to get food into the camps when the few main access roads flood.
- Physical danger: Children face increased physical danger when the monsoons arrive due to flash floods and landslides that could cause their makeshift shelters to collapse. At least 100,000 people are in grave danger of landslides and floods, which could damage one quarter of washrooms, latrines, and nearly half of current sources of water from tube wells, as well as other essential services such as classrooms, nutrition centers, and almost one-third of health clinics.
- Violence, especially against women and girls: Extreme poverty increases the vulnerability of women and girls to violence, especially as refugees from Myanmar have no legal status in Bangladesh. This makes them particularly vulnerable to abuse. There are reports of women and girls being forced into prostitution. They are also resorting to survival sex in exchange for food and services. Risks of child labor and child marriage are high. Many adolescent girls over the age of 12 are married. For many families, child marriage is a coping mechanism that they hope will protect girls from assault and give them better access to food aid.
For more information, read “Childhood Interrupted: Children’s Voices from the Rohingya Refugee Crisis,” a joint report from World Vision and other humanitarian organizations, based on consultation with children and mothers in Bangladesh refugee camps and host communities.
Contributors: Karen Homer, Chris Huber, and Kathryn Reid, World Vision staff