The first thing Rohingya villagers fleeing Myanmar notice when they get to Bangladesh, apart from the stench of raw sewage from thousands of other refugees lacking access to toilet facilities, is locals trying to sell them bamboo poles.
In the past two-and-a-half weeks, an estimated 370,000 people fleeing violence in Myanmar’s eastern state of Rakhine have streamed into the country, creating a humanitarian crisis.
The crisis has drawn international condemnation for Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize winner who is Myanmar’s de facto leader. On Wednesday, the Myanmar government said she was cancelling her plans to attend the UN general assembly in New York and would focus on the situation in Rakhine.
But there are also problems for neighbouring Bangladesh, which aid agencies say is becoming overwhelmed with the rate at which refugees are arriving.
The bamboo poles are being used to create makeshift dwellings, with entire camps appearing overnight as tens of thousands of people cobble together places to shelter from Bangladesh’s monsoon rains.
“Road access is very difficult and there is not enough shelter,” says the International Organisation for Migration. “The Bangladeshis had contingency plans for perhaps 100,000 people, but it is very rare we see this many people move this quickly.”
On certain measures, says the IOM, the crisis is more acute than that created by the Syrian civil war, which has seen far more people displaced but over a wider area and into countries with better infrastructure. The number of refugees arriving in Bangladesh since August 25 is almost three times the total that entered the EU by sea this year.
[The camps] look like hell. Actually, I think hell must look better than this
The conflict between Myanmar’s ethnic Burmese majority and minority Rohingyas, most of whom are Muslim, dates back several decades and has resurfaced violently since the country began its transition from military rule in 2011.
The current round of violence began on August 25, when militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army targeted about 30 police posts and an army base in Rakhine, killing several people. Myanmar’s security forces responded with a brutal security operation that sent people fleeing from their homes, according to Rohingyas, and killed several people.
On Monday Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN’s top human rights official, called the military action “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
Bangladeshi border guards initially tried to stop those trying to cross from Myanmar, say locals. But they were overwhelmed and have set up informal crossing points where they are registering and fingerprinting new arrivals.
“The police and the border guards can see the shooting, they can see the burning homes,” says Zayed Jack, a Rohingya who has lived in Bangladesh for several years and now helps new arrivals. “They are not trying to stop people crossing, they have been very helpful.”
Sheikh Hasina, the Bangladeshi prime minister, on Tuesday paid her first visit to Cox’s Bazar, the leafy coastal district of Bangladesh bordering Myanmar, which has witnessed an unprecedented flow of people in the past few days.
Bangladesh would accept those coming across the border, she says, but urges Myanmar to “take steps to take their nationals back”. Her government has allocated up to 2,000 acres of land for a new camp, but refugees are arriving so fast they are settling anywhere they can find space.
Sayed Ullah crossed the border a few days ago and is living with 21 others under a makeshift tarpaulin shelter. “When the rain falls we go inside and wait,” he says, standing up to his ankles in mud. “Yes, a river passes under the tarpaulin, but we still have to wait.
“We have two more days’ worth of food. After that, unless we can get some from the government or aid agencies, we will starve. I am hungry. I don't know what I will eat for breakfast tomorrow.”
Aid agencies have rushed to the area but say supplies cannot get there quickly enough. The UN on Wednesday called for the aid effort to be ramped up “massively”.
Those who have been in Cox’s Bazar for some time are used to periodic waves of refugees from Myanmar. But they say they have seen nothing like the current influx.
“It looks like hell,” says Mr Jack. “Actually, I think hell must look better than this.”
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