"We can't let the Rohingya crisis become a forgotten tragedy"

Providing medical care in the world's largest refugee camp

"We can't let the Rohingya crisis become a forgotten tragedy"

Providing medical care in the world's largest refugee camp

Sunny La Valle is a nurse from the UK. She recently returned from Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh where MSF has been responding to the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis, providing vital healthcare to people living in the world’s largest refugee camp.

Since August 2017, over 706,000 Rohingya people have fled neighbouring Myanmar following violent persecution...

Before I went to Bangladesh, the Rohingya’s situation had been in the news a lot.

I expected to find a large refugee camp but, once I arrived,  I couldn't believe just how big it was. I couldn't wrap my head around how many people were displaced in such a short period of time and were now living here, unable to move.

A Rohingya refugee in Jamtoli makeshift camp, where more than 50,000 people are sheltering. © Anna Surinyach

© Anna Surinyach

Rohingya people crowded at an outpatient clinic in Kutupalong © Antonio Faccilongo

© Antonio Faccilongo

Halima Khatu cries over her eight-month-old son Mohammed Harez, who is suffering from acute pneumonia. © Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

© Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

A Rohingya refugee in Jamtoli makeshift camp, where more than 50,000 people are sheltering. © Anna Surinyach

© Anna Surinyach

© Antonio Faccilongo

An injured Rohingya boy sits on his bed at MSF's medical facility in Kutupalong.

© Antonio Faccilongo

Large patient numbers

For six months, I managed three MSF health posts that provided primary care – the first point of contact for the refugee community.

In one of our clinics just outside the camp, the outpatient department sees 300 or 400 patients a day. These are large numbers.

MSF projects responding to the Rohingya refugee crisis.

MSF projects responding to the Rohingya refugee crisis.

A lot of the health problems we see are respiratory diseases and skin diseases that are made worse because of the cramped living conditions.

We see lots of children under five, and many of our patients are pregnant women. We provide antenatal and postnatal care, family planning and general consultations.

A lot of the women have complications in their pregnancy, due to a lack of access to proper care in the camp but also, we know in Myanmar.

Pregnant women sometimes arrive very late into their pregnancy.

If women go into labour at night, even if they want to come and give birth in one of our facilities, they are too scared to walk through the camp and wait until the morning. That can put both mother and baby at risk.

Many other expectant mothers also choose to give birth in their shelters, accompanied by traditional birth attendants with little medical training. This can lead to complications.

"I think the children are very resilient. It's an awful situation they're in, and many of the younger children don't know why they’re in this position"

Eight-year-old Rachida fled to Bangladesh with her sister and brother

© Ikram N'gadi

© Ikram N'gadi

Emotional scars

There are fewer physical injuries now compared to when patients first arrived with bullet and stab wounds following the violence in Myanmar – but mental health problems are emerging more and more.

The initial shock has worn off and people are now realising this is their situation. Their future is looking bleak.

The work of our mental health counsellors is vitally important, because so many people were displaced so suddenly and under such violent circumstances.

I think the children are very resilient. It's an awful situation they're in, and many of the younger children don't know why they’re in this position.

However, the slightly older children are starting to realise. There is a lot of frustration, and you can tell there's a lot of anger.


Listen to Sunny talk about her time in Bangladesh on our Everyday Emergency podcast

“The eyes and ears of MSF”

Some of the Rohingya people in the camp volunteer with MSF in various roles.

I managed the stretcher bearers who would carry people to the hospital when they were critically ill.

In the rainy season, they would sometimes walk for 40 minutes through the sliding mud and treacherous conditions.

In the outreach team many of our volunteers previously worked with MSF in our projects in Rakhine, Myanmar. They now help with health promotion and contact tracing when there’s a disease outbreak.

They are the eyes and ears of MSF in the camp.

They have so much experience and valuable networks from their work in Myanmar as well as in the mega-camp in Bangladesh.

People trust them. Many are pillars of their community and they manage to stay positive and move forward in some way, in a situation that seems impossible.

In turn, the patients really trust MSF.

When I asked people: ‘Why did you come to MSF?’, they would reply that they recognised us from Myanmar.

We were one of the few international organisations that were working in Rakhine State before the crisis in 2017.

The Rohingya already knew us and they trusted that we were providing good care and that we had the facilities to do so.

Photo top: © Sara Creta / Photo bottom: © Daphne Tolis

Rescuing relatives from Myanmar

Quite a lot of people still have family at home in Myanmar. Some of the people I spoke to went back to try and rescue their relatives. Which is dangerous because they don't know if they will be able to come back.

Even though they're aware of how dangerous it is, their desperation to get their families over and safe supersedes that.

There was one volunteer, a stretcher bearer, who crossed back into Myanmar to try and get his uncle who he thought had tuberculosis – so that he could be treated by MSF in Bangladesh.

The volunteer was warned that he might not make it back alive, but he chose to go anyway. He had a very young wife who was expecting a baby.

There was both relief and heartbreak when he finally came back. Sadly, he returned without his uncle, who was too sick to be moved through the jungle and across the river at night.

That’s when you realise how desperate the situation is. Even though there are hundreds of thousands of people in this camp, there are still many who haven't been able to get across who desperately need medical help.

There's a fear for the people that have been left behind. It's getting harder and harder to make it to Bangladesh now.

“You can feel the frustration”

I had several conversations with the Rohingya about the prospect of going home to Myanmar. It was heart-breaking.

Some are realistic, and they can tell there's no hope of going home anytime soon. The atmosphere in the camp is changing slowly, there's less of a “fight-or-flight” reaction and the shock is wearing off.

People are realising that this is their situation now, and they don't know how long for. Will this be their reality for the next year, or for the next 10 years? They just don't know.

"It should be a fundamental human right that people are safe and have access to healthcare, but it’s not a given"

An MSF midwife speaks to a Rohingya mother

© Pablo Tosco/Angular

© Pablo Tosco/Angular

Independence and neutrality

It should be a fundamental human right that people are safe and have access to healthcare, but it’s not a given.

Going forward into the next year, we don't know if other organisations are going to stay in Cox’s Bazar and in what capacity.

Now that the initial “news rush” is over, I fear that the whole situation will become a forgotten tragedy of a forgotten people.

I am so grateful that I got the chance to play a part in responding to this crisis by working with MSF – we respond directly to the needs of people. MSF is one of the only international organisations providing treatment for more serious illnesses with secondary care.

To people supporting MSF’s work, I would like to say thank you. Your support is vital. It's because of you that we can be there.

MSF will continue working, even when the TV news cameras are gone.