At the end of March we welcomed back one of our Associates, Andrea Manenti, who deployed with the British Red Cross Emergency Response Unit (ERU) in Bangladesh for a month, helping people fleeing Myanmar.
Since August 2017 almost 700,000 people have fled Myanmar into neighbouring Bangladesh. Most people arrived carrying almost nothing; they are now almost entirely dependent on humanitarian assistance to meet their most basic needs.
Andrea, a sanitation engineer with the ERU, joined a team of seven others to provide better and safer sanitation in one area of the camps. It is part of a wider initiative across the whole camp area and a truly daunting task. Ahead of the monsoon season, this is work more important than ever. The risk of a severe outbreak of waterborne diseases is expected because of the inadequate conditions in the camps.
Andrea said that when he first arrived he was overwhelmed with the situation – almost one million people living in a sprawling camp as far as the horizon, with little to no infrastructure at all. What could be accomplished in just four weeks?
What continually surprised Andrea was the resilience of the people in the camps – people who have lost everything including their homes, family members and country. But despite their current situation and uncertain future, Andrea found people to be extremely resilient, peaceful and proactive in the solving of problems.
One thing that stuck with Andrea was how the people he met were always active and productive. Andrea had 80 people who live in the camps assigned to his team, undertaking a variety of tasks from filling sandbags (essential for reinforcing walls and paths) and digging latrine holes, to carpenters constructing buildings from bamboo, and technicians and mechanics building pumps.
It can be all too easy to see people who have been displaced as helpless, but while they may be helpless in what has happened to them, they have the drive, skills and experience to shape their future if given the chance.
In the short term, Andrea’s team’s focus was on ‘DDT’ – the decommissioning of makeshift toilets and the building of new ones (Decommissioning makeshift toilets, Desludging – removing and treating waste with lime, Toilet construction – building new toilets in planned areas).
In the medium term, it was to establish the faecal sludge management site, where the human waste or ‘sludge’ is treated, and to ensure that it and the sanitation facilities would continue to function in the coming monsoon season. The imminent torrential rains will bring with them problems of flooding and landslides and the deterioration of the sanitation services. All of these factors combine to make a devastating outbreak of disease a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’. It is now a race against time and the British Red Cross and the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement continue to work hard to reinforce shelters and infrastructure and to reach as many people as possible before the rains start.
Clear vision and courage are needed to find solutions that will make life better for all people who have fled Rakhine. Until the causes of this crisis are addressed, people will continue to struggle. The Red Cross will continue to support people displaced from Myanmar, but more help is desperately needed.
To find out more please visit www.redcross.org.uk/Myanmar.
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 dauting 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.