At the end of March we welcomed back one of our Associates, Andrea Manenti, who spent the previous 4 weeks on deployment with the British Red Cross Emergency Response Units in Bangladesh, helping victims of the devastating Rohingya crisis.
Since August 2017 Rohingyas have been fleeing Myanmar (formerly Burma) into neighbouring Bangladesh after the ruling Buddhist government stepped up its marginalisation of this mainly Muslim part of the population into violence. For years the Rohingya’s rights as citizens have been steadily stripped away and this latest move has seen them attacked in the streets and burned out of their homes.
The UN has described the latest mass exodus of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar as “the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis” and “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
It is now estimated that in the Bangladesh refugee camps close to the Myanmar border there are over 800,000 Rohingya refugees, many of them children.
Andrea was deployed as part of the British Red Cross Emergency Response Unit, specifically using his skills as a sanitation engineer to work with seven others in his team organising the sanitation in one area of 10,000 people. It is part of a wider initiative across the whole camp area, and a truly daunting task.
Andrea said that when he first arrived he was overwhelmed with the situation; just under 1 million people with no infrastructure at all. What could be accomplished in just four weeks?
To get a realistic sense of the situation he walked through their assigned area and realised that it could be easily broken down into blocks because the Rohingya had organised themselves, as much as they could, into blocks, each block of 4 containing about 1,800 people. Very much a case of: How do you eat a mountain? One bite at a time.
What continually surprised him was the resilience of the Rohingya people. People who have lost everything – homes, family members and their country; they literally now belong nowhere. But despite their current and future situation and the violence that many have experienced Andrea found them to be an extremely resilient and peaceful people, very proactive and democratic in the solving of problems.
One thing that was particularly evident every day he was there, was how everyone was always active, and productive – men, women and children.
Andrea had 80 Rohingya assigned to his team undertaking a variety of tasks from filling sandbags (essential for reinforcing walls and paths etc) and digging latrine holes, to carpenters constructing buildings from bamboo, and technicians and mechanics building pumps etc.
It can be all too easy to see refugees as helpless, but while the Rohingya are helpless in what has happened to them, they have the drive, skills and experience to shape their future if given the chance.
Andrea had many meetings not only with the variety of aid agencies trying to get a handle on this deepening crisis, but also the local leaders, the ‘Maji’ of each ‘block’. The ‘emergency’ is over, and what is happening now is the planning, both short and long term, for this displaced population.
In the short term, Andrea’s team’s focus was the building/rebuilding of sanitation sites, the decommissioning of make-shift toilets and the building of new ones; DDT (Decommissioning makeshift toilets, Desludging – removing and treating waste with lime, Toilet construction – building new toilets in planned areas).
In the medium term, establishment of the FSM (faecal sludge management) site, and to ensure that it and the WASH facilities would continue to function in the coming monsoon season. The imminent torrential rain presents problems of flooding and landslides, exacerbated by the swathes of forest cleared to accommodate the expanding refugee camp, and deterioration of the sanitation services. All of these factors combine to make a devasting outbreak of cholera a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’.
In the long term, aid agencies are working to put sustainable infrastructure in place and resolve the key question of where these people will find new homes? While Bangladesh has had to accept this fleeing influx from its neighbour there are growing tensions because it can’t sustain a refugee population equivalent to 20% of its own population. Myanmar refuses to take them back, strengthening its military presence along the border.
The future is still very much in doubt for what Amnesty International describes as “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world”.
Andrea has been a member of the British Red Cross for 8 years, having previously worked for Irish charity GOAL in Kenya and Zimbabwe in 2008 during the cholera outbreak.
His volunteer availability is February to March and this is the first time a crisis has fallen within this window, so he was very excited to be able to be involved despite the daunting task ahead.
Reflecting on his experience he says: “I try to bring the reality of the situation back home. Being there and seeing the situation these people are in puts our problems very much in perspective.”
It is a sobering reminder that while it is easy to see TV reports of refugee crises and think that they are just too big a problem and too far away, these are real people – just like us – facing a devastating life change and truly frightening future with courage and dignity. They are people – and while we can’t all make the sort of commitment Andrea has made, every one of us can help in some small way.