From the Field

Rohingya refugee crisis: Facts, FAQs, and how to help

Since Aug. 25, 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have fled to Bangladesh. This Rohingya refugee crisis is among the largest, fastest movements of people in recent history. The Rohingya, a mostly-Muslim minority ethnic group in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, are escaping what the United Nations has described as genocidal violence that follows decades of persecution and human rights abuses.

Flooding into Cox’s Bazar district in Bangladesh, the refugees joined more than 200,000 Rohingya who had fled years before.

Today, nearly 880,000 stateless Rohingya refugees live in the world’s largest and most densely populated refugee camp, Kutupalong. About half of the refugees are children.

On March 22, 2021, their plight intensified after a massive fire swept through Cox’s Bazar, destroying more than 10,000 shelters, food distribution sites, and clean water and sanitation facilities. The deadly blaze ripped through four of the 34 camps, displacing about 45,000 people. The death toll has risen to at least 15, with another 560 injured and over 400 missing, according to preliminary estimates by the Inter-Sector Coordination Group, a central coordinating team for humanitarian agencies serving Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar.

The exact cause of the fire is unknown as the blaze spread rapidly due to high winds and burned for many hours.

Rohingya refugee crisis: Facts, FAQs, and how to help
Eleven-year-old Baitullah stands on a hillside overlooking the charred remains of his camp in Cox’s Bazar after a fire destroyed shelters, food distribution sites, and clean water and sanitation facilities on March 23, 2021. (©2021 World Vision/photo by Sathi Islam)

“I saw smoke coming rising from another side of the hill. People were shouting and panicking. I rescued my siblings and went to Thaingkhali camp to save ourselves,” says 11-year-old Baitullah. He stood on a hill overlooking the charred remains of his home, having already lost his home in Myanmar. “This morning when I came back, I saw nothing but ashes at our place.”

World Vision is distributing emergency food to families affected by the blaze. We also converted our educational and multipurpose centers to serve as emergency shelters. Child protection is a critical issue as many children are missing or displaced.

Children also face risks of malnutrition, trafficking, and getting sick with COVID-19 or other illnesses, as water and sanitation sites have been damaged or destroyed.

“Rohingya refugees are among the most vulnerable people in the world. They have been living with ongoing uncertainty, storms and the threat of disease outbreaks since fleeing their homes in 2017. This fire is the last thing that they need at a time when shelter is critical for protection from the impending monsoon season and COVID-19 is threatening to circulate around the crowded camps at an alarming rate,” says Fredrick Christopher, Rohingya crisis response director for World Vision in Bangladesh.

“An unforgiving incident like this just deepens the sense of hopelessness in the hearts of everyone here at Cox’s Bazar. World Vision will spare no effort in continuing to mobilize all our resources to help the Rohingya children and families during this extraordinarily challenging time,” he says.

Since the beginning of the refugee crisis in 2017, World Vision, in partnership with the Bangladesh government and U.N. agencies, is caring for 265,000 Rohingya refugees with life-saving assistance and helping improve living conditions in the Rohingya refugee camps.

Despite this help, the Rohingya people remain at risk, and their future is uncertain. Without recognized refugee status in Bangladesh or legal citizenship in Myanmar, they are citizens of nowhere.

Bring hope to refugee children.

FAQs: What you need to know about the Rohingya refugee crisis

Explore facts and frequently asked questions about the Rohingya refugee crisis, and learn how to help Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

Fast facts: Rohingya refugee crisis explained

In 2017, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees described the Rohingya refugee crisis as “the most urgent refugee emergency in the world.” Here are the facts you need to know:

  • About 860,000 Rohingya live in the world’s largest and most densely populated refugee camp in southern Bangladesh.
  • About 1.3 million people — both refugees and local community members — need humanitarian assistance.
  • From April to November, heavy monsoon rains make life more perilous for refugees in the overcrowded camps.
  • The Myanmar and Bangladesh governments continue to negotiate terms for the repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. In the meantime, children in the camps need access to formal education, and parents deserve the right to earn a living to support their families.
  • On March 22, a massive fire swept through the camps in Cox’s Bazar. The deadly blaze injured at least 500, with more than 400 missing, including children. Those without shelter now number 45,000.

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Rohingya refugee crisis map
Map courtesy of the Asia Times via ReliefWeb

Who are the Rohingya people?

The Rohingya people are a mostly-Muslim ethnic minority group in Myanmar. They represent about 1 million people among Myanmar’s total population of 52 million and live in the northern part of Rakhine State, which borders Bangladesh and India. As the Rohingya were not among the 135 officially recognized ethnic groups included in Myanmar’s 2014 census, they are not eligible for citizenship in Myanmar.

Essentially stateless, without legal rights and protection, Rohingya children and families are vulnerable to human trafficking, child labor, child marriage, gender-based violence, and other forms of exploitation and abuse.

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What is the Rohingya refugee crisis?

Nearly 1 million Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh and live as refugees in overcrowded camps in locations prone to frequent natural disasters. Many of them are struggling to recover from traumatic experiences and to meet basic needs.

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What caused the Rohingya refugee crisis?

The Rohingya refugee crisis is caused by the Rohingya people having long faced violence and discrimination in Myanmar. Armed conflict escalated in August 2017 in Rakhine State, causing Rohingya to flee to nearby Bangladesh. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres described the situation in September of that year as “the world’s fastest-developing refugee emergency and a humanitarian and human rights nightmare.”

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How many people are in need in Bangladesh because of the Rohingya refugee crisis?

About 1.1 million people in Bangladesh need humanitarian aid, including both Rohingya refugees and members of communities that host them.

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How can I help Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh?

Because Rohingya refugees are not allowed to work, they rely on aid from World Vision and other organizations.

  • Pray for mothers, fathers, and children who struggle to survive as refugees.
  • Give to World Vision’s Refugee Children’s Crisis Fund to help provide for their needs.

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What are the refugees’ living conditions in the camps?

After fleeing violence in Myanmar, Rohingya refugees are living in rudimentary conditions. With 40,000 people per square kilometer, the camps are one of the most crowded places on Earth. Five family members or more live in cramped, 10-by-16-foot shelters with only one room. Up to 20 people share a single outdoor latrine. They must wait in line for water for washing, cooking, and bathing.

During seasonal monsoon rains from April to November, refugees’ makeshift shelters are at risk from floods and landslides, making living conditions worse.

Given the hot, humid weather in southern Bangladesh and frequent windblown dust, respiratory infections are common among refugee children and adults. Acute watery diarrhea is another frequent ailment. It’s especially dangerous in combination with malnutrition, which is widespread.

The World Food Programme provides all food, which is distributed by their partners, including World Vision. Refugees receive monthly food rations that include rice, lentils, and oil. Although the rations are nutritious, it’s difficult to eat the same food day after day. About half of the refugee population now receives e-voucher cards to buy meat and fresh produce from World Food Programme stores, but dietary diversity and balanced nutrition remains a challenge.

The Rohingya also suffer from psychosocial stress made worse by overcrowded conditions.

The Rohingya are a culturally conservative community. Women and teenage girls are expected to stay home and to be homemakers, not breadwinners. They lack control over household finances, and their dependence makes them vulnerable to assault, domestic violence, child marriage, exploitation, and trafficking.

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How are Rohingya children affected by the refugee crisis?

Refugee children are at high risk of disease, including malnutrition, as well as physical abuse and violence. Here are some of the risks they face:

  • Disease outbreaks: Children routinely suffer from communicable diseases such as diarrhea and respiratory infections, as well as conditions such as heat rash and head lice.
  • Lack of protection: Across the camps, almost 540,000 children need protection. They face serious risks, including psychosocial distress, neglect, abuse, separation from caregivers, sexual violence, child marriage, child labor, and trafficking. Girls are particularly vulnerable.
  • Lack of access to formal education: Nearly half of the 540,000 Rohingya children ages 3 to 14 don’t have access to any formal education, which is restricted in the camps. This means children cannot sit for exams or pass a grade level. A reported 97% of all youth ages 14 to 24 also lack access to any form of education or vocational training.
  • Malnutrition: Acute malnutrition among refugee children under age 5 has decreased since 2017, but remains at “serious” levels, according to WHO. Levels of stunting remain at more than 30%. This means that children are smaller for their age and may never catch up.

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.

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How is World Vision responding to the Rohingya refugee crisis?

World Vision has served in Bangladesh since 1970, following the Great Bhola Cyclone that killed at least 300,000 people across the country. Today, World Vision’s work in Bangladesh reaches about 5 million children and adults. We recently launched a new child sponsorship program in the Ukhiya community focused on education, literacy, and nutrition, which will benefit 35,000 people.

World Vision programs contribute to the well-being and empowerment of refugee and host communities. We also promote and protect their rights through our advocacy work with international, national, and local governments. Our goal is to protect the safety and dignity of refugees and advocate for their safe, dignified, and voluntary return to Myanmar.

World Vision operates in all 34 Rohingya camps, providing aid for more than 400,000 refugees through:

  • Child protection: We strengthen child protection systems in families and communities by engaging children, parents, faith leaders, and government leaders in ending violence against children, including child marriage. We refer children in need to the right professional services in the camps.
  • Food security, livelihoods, and cash: We distribute food and provide monthly fresh-food vouchers so families can buy eggs, fresh produce, and other food of their choice. We supply vouchers to pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers and support families to grow vegetables. World Vision is one of the World Food Programme’s largest partners in food aid.
  • Nutrition: We help prevent and treat malnutrition in children under age 5, as well as in pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. We support 1,500 children and 250 mothers monthly through supplementary and therapeutic feeding in our five centers. Up to 1,050 women a day cook nutritious food for their families in our 42 community kitchens and learning centers.
  • Water, sanitation, and hygiene: World Vision has installed deep wells, latrines, hand-washing stations, and bathing cubicles to benefit more than 200,000 refugees in 11 camps. We hold hygiene promotion sessions and support some 1,000 community WASH committees that manage and maintain facilities.
  • Education: We have provided informal education for 3,840 children ages 3 to 14 in our 21 learning centers, in partnership with UNICEF. Adolescents ages 15 to 18 also benefited from training in vocational skills, as well as basic literacy and numeracy.
  • Gender-based violence prevention: At our Women’s Peace Centers, women and girls have built supportive social safety nets while learning how to identify and protect themselves. We have also trained men and boys in gender-based violence awareness, equipping them to become champions for the women and girls in their families. Vocational training offered at the centers has empowered women economically and socially.
  • Host communities: The influx of almost 1 million Rohingya profoundly affected local communities — already among the poorest in Bangladesh. The refugee population is now almost triple that of the host community. World Vision supports community savings groups and income-generating activities that help vulnerable men and women break the cycle of poverty.

Read Two Years On: Supporting Resilience for a Better Tomorrow, a 2019 report about World Vision’s work with Rohingya refugees.

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How is World Vision supporting the Rohingya people affected by the March 22, 2021, fire?

World Vision’s staff immediately distributed emergency food supplies to refugees who lost their homes and belongings in the fire.

In addition to the distribution of high-energy biscuits to families, we’re providing to 50,000 people after the deadly fire destroyed shelters, food distribution sites, and clean water and sanitation facilities. We’ve converted our educational and multipurpose centers to serve as emergency shelters for children and their families.

We expect to know the full extent of the damage and impact in a few days. What we know now is that at least three of the camps we’re serving have been damaged, destroying several World Vision food distribution sites and WASH facilities and leaving thousands of Rohingya people without food, clothes, and shelters.

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How is World Vision helping the Rohingya people with the challenges of the coronavirus?

World Vision is working with the U.N. and other humanitarian organizations to slow and stop the spread of the new coronavirus in the refugee camps. As of June 2, only 29 cases were confirmed among 860,000 people.

In April, the Bangladesh government limited access in the refugee camps to critical services, including food aid, healthcare, nutrition programs, and water, sanitation, and hygiene.

Since March 2020, World Vision has:

  • Conducted camp-wide public awareness campaigns on physical distancing, handwashing, and other health measures that have reached thousands of refugees.
  • Engaged almost 600 Rohingya faith leaders to help get coronavirus prevention messages out quickly.

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Timeline: History of the Rohingya people

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. It excludes the Rohingya, which effectively renders them stateless.

1989 to 1991: A military crackdown follows a popular uprising. Burma is renamed Myanmar. Another 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: A military crackdown follows an attack on a border post in which police offers were killed. During the crackdown, about 87,000 people fled to Bangladesh.

2017: Mass exodus from Myanmar

  • August: Following Rohingya militia attacks on several police and army posts in Myanmar on Aug. 25, state security forces launch a campaign of horrific violence and terror targeting the Rohingya community. More than 700,000 Rohingya flee Myanmar. The cycle of mass displacement begins again, this time on an unprecedented scale.
  • September: The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) declares the Rohingya refugee crisis a major emergency and scales up its response.
  • November: Myanmar and Bangladesh agree to start repatriating refugees within the next two months. According to international law, repatriation should be voluntary by refugees only when conditions are safe.

2018: Little hope of return

  • 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 through November: Monsoon and cyclone seasons increase hazards for refugees living in makeshift shelters.
  • September: The U.N. releases a report accusing the Myanmar military of atrocities against Rohingya Muslims.
  • November: The Bangladesh and Myanmar governments offer refugees the chance to return to Myanmar. Not a single Rohingya accepts.

2019: Continued uncertainty

  • Increased violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State leads to the displacement of 4,500 more Rohingya people. This casts doubt on the feasibility of refugees returning to Myanmar anytime soon.
  • December: An International Court of Justice case accuses Myanmar of genocide of the Rohingya people.

2020: Coronavirus pandemic threats

  • April through November: Living in makeshift shelters, refugees face increased risk of COVID-19 infection during monsoon and cyclone seasons.
  • May: The first case of COVID-19 is confirmed in the Rohingya refugee camps.
  • June: Among 860,000 refugees, 29 cases are reported.

2021: Fire blazes as the coronavirus remains a concern

  • March 23: A deadly fire rips through Cox’s Bazar, destroying 10,000 shelters, World Vision food distribution sites, and clean water and sanitation facilities. World Vision immediately begins distributing emergency food supplies to families affected by the fire.

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Chris Huber and Sevil Omer of World Vision’s U.S. staff and Karen Homer, public engagement director for World Vision’s Rohingya refugee response in Bangladesh, contributed to this article.

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