From clean water and sanitation to advocacy, Oxfam is assisting hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar who fled the attacks of 2017.
It has been more than two years since over 700,000 Rohingya from Myanmar became refugees. Targeted by the military with mass violence that the United Nations describes as ethnic cleansing, they left behind everything they owned. They carried with them a heavy burden: the memories of atrocities carried out against their loved ones, and of the abuse that they themselves endured. The emotional wounds are still fresh; ask a refugee a question about the present day, and you will likely hear a haunting personal story of what happened in August 2017.
“We saw with our own eyes people tied up and thrown into police trucks,” says a woman who lives in a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. “Blood flowed from the trucks like water.”
“They killed my brothers and raped my sisters and mother and killed them,” says Abu Musa, another refugee. “We get up every morning and wonder how we can go on.”
Yet, somehow the life of the community does go on. The camps bustle with activity, with roadside market vendors selling everything from vegetables to pots and pans to brightly colored clothing. Trucks arrive with goods and make their way slowly along brick roads, crafted by hand to survive the monsoon rains. Children surround new visitors, eager to interact and play. Someone tells a joke, and someone laughs.
Protecting lives, rights, and dignity
When refugees began their exodus in 2017, protecting lives was Oxfam’s priority. The camps that formed to accommodate the refugees quickly became overcrowded, creating perfect conditions for the outbreak and spread of deadly waterborne diseases. With your support, we helped prevent a public health emergency by constructing latrines, providing access to clean water, distributing hygiene materials, such as soap and sanitary pads. Over time, we constructed the largest sewage treatment plant in a refugee camp anywhere in the world.
“Before learning about hygiene from Oxfam, I didn’t know how to use soap properly,” says a young woman named Saitara. “I didn’t know about washing hands before eating and cooking. Now, I am cooking food safely.”
“After Oxfam’s work,” says a mother of three named Hamida, “our children didn’t get diarrhea so often.”
Safety�particularly for vulnerable groups like women and girls�was also a key priority, so Oxfam installed solar-powered lights around the camp and provided families with solar flashlights and lanterns to help residents move around safely in night.
“We use the flashlights to get to the latrine at night or to find a lost child,” says Saitara, “or to help people who are elderly or disabled.”
To ensure people had access to food, clothing, and other essentials, we distributed vouchers families could use in local markets.
For women and girls, conservative religious practices combined with crowding in the camps have translated into lives of particular confinement and constraint. Oxfam has provided women with burqas to enable them to leave their shelters violating their community’s standard of modesty.
“When I’m wearing a burqa,” says a mother named Noor, “I can go anywhere.”
Thanks to your support, we’re also helping to create safe spaces for women to gather and make their voices heard, and through women’s groups and musical performances, we are working with local organizations and communities to raise awareness about wider issues, such as early marriage, gender-based violence, and harmful traditional gender roles.
The influx of refugees has been hard on the host communities. Among other things, already-low wages have dropped, while the cost of living has risen. To help address local poverty and ease tensions between hosts and refugees, Oxfam has employed more than 1,800 Bangladeshis in construction projects, such as building roads, schools, and water points.
We also worked with partners to improve livelihoods of particularly vulnerable families in the host communities. For example, when pirates attacked the vessel of fisherman Nurul Hoque, they blinded him, and he was reduced to begging on the street. Oxfam partner Mukti stepped in, providing funds and business training that enabled his family to start up a roadside food stall.
“Now, we eat three times a day,” says his wife, Mumtaz Begum, “and we have bought four goats.”
In all, Oxfam and our partners have reached more than 360,000 people with aid.
Refugees experiencing fear and longing
But nothing we do will make the camps feel like home, and despite the violent past, the refugees’ longing for their homeland is palpable.
They are deeply grateful to the government and host communities of Bangladesh for providing them with shelter and safety, but they don’t want to live out their lives as refugees.
“We used to be farmers. We grew rice and chilies, and our sons fished. My husband had a snack stall,” says Hamida. “We want that life back.” Many others say the same, but always with a caveat.
“We can’t leave until we have a promise. We need security and citizenship in our country,” says Faruk, who has a young daughter. “Our people have been killed before, and we don’t want to face that again.”
Oxfam is committed to doing more than simply provide aid in the camps. With advocacy staff positioned in capital cities around the world, we are urging governments to put pressure on Myanmar to provide the Rohingya people with the rights and citizenship they’ve been denied for decades, and with a chance to return to their home country when the refugees themselves deem it safe.
In the meantime, the Rohingya people are doing their best to recover, and to hang onto their hopes and dreams.
“We are asking for our country back,” says a woman named Azara. “And for a chance to live there in peace.”