Twenty years ago I visited what were commonly called ‘Bhutanese refugee camps’ in southeastern Nepal. (In fact, they were camps of tens of thousands of Nepali-origin people living in Bhutan who had been brutally evicted from that country, with the tacit assent of regional superpower India. But that’s another story.) The tiny bamboo huts where people had to make their new lives were laid out in regular grids on the beaten earth of Nepal’s Tarai or plains region.
So when I imagined the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, that image of rows upon rows of tidy, tiny, bamboo buildings came to mind. It couldn’t be further from the truth. The massive Rohingya camps (housing close to 900,000 people) are located on hilly terrain. Because the Bangladesh Government refuses to recognize the Rohingya — who fled similar ethnic cleansing in neighbouring Myanmar — as official refugees, their ‘homes’ are not uniform buildings but a collection of irregular huts covering the hills.
320 landslides within the camps
When it rains, the dirt turns to mud and, often, the camps are flooded. This past July, days of torrential rain triggered 320 landslides in the camps, killing at least 19 people and damaging or destroying over 3000 shelters.
Imagine being a pregnant woman who needs to go to a health facility in those conditions. In addition, in the very conservative Rohingya Muslim culture, women normally need permission from a man to leave their homes. So to go for a check-up, or even to deliver a baby, requires the assent of at least one man (the husband) who usually takes his cues from a community elder.
Surprisingly, despite these challenges maternal health among Rohingya women in the camps appears to be improving. I wrote about this recently for The British Medical Journal.
I don’t remember when I had to work so hard to try and get people to speak to me for an article. I soon understood that the Rohingya, besides being a major humanitarian issue, are a political ‘problem’ that most organizations working in Cox’s Bazar would rather not discuss. (Thanks, by the way, to Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, for granting me two interviews.)