The Rohingya refugee crisis speaks to the worst acts of humanity

More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar in the past year. It is vital we don’t forget them

Since the end of August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees have fled escalating violence in Myanmar to Bangladesh where they are staying in refugee camps. The influx was so fast and immense that there was little time to plan for their arrival. As such, the homes people have built for themselves from bamboo and tarpaulin are unstable and precariously positioned.

Basic sanitation – the kind many of us might take for granted – is limited and most camps have sewage flowing freely through them. More than half the population in these camps are children, who are especially vulnerable to the dangers presented by these living conditions. Rohingya refugees have gone through a horrendous ordeal before arriving here. Now, in the midst of the monsoon, they are faced with having to rebuild their homes once again.

As a Unicef UK ambassador, I’ve seen a lot of the organisation’s work during emergencies. Some of the most inspiring things I saw on this trip were the child friendly spaces. These are places where children who are caught up in horrendous situations can come to receive support to recover from the trauma they have witnessed, and to just play and be themselves.

At one centre on the edge of Kutupalong camp, I was shown pictures the children had drawn when they arrived here in September. Children’s drawings are usually so full of innocence, but what I had in my hands were very real accounts of the horrors these children had witnessed. The scale and brutality of the violence they’ve gone through is unimaginable. Their pictures showed villages on fire and people being hung from trees, shot at and killed. As the scale of the situation started to hit home, it became clear to me that it was different from anything I’d ever seen before.

One of the things that really struck me was the way in which the horrors of the Rohingya situation were balanced out by hope and inspiration. Many of the children who arrived in the camps were clearly traumatised – they’d witnessed the kind of violence that no one, child nor adult, should see. The child friendly spaces provide these children with psychosocial support. They’re a space to play, sing songs and laugh once again, but also somewhere children can try to process what they’ve witnessed. If just one of these centres were removed, 23,000 children would go without access to vital psychosocial, recreational and educational facilities.

Michael Sheen with children
Michael Sheen with children at a Unicef-supported Learning Centre in the Balukhali refugee camp, Cox’s Bazar. Photograph: Siegfried Modola/Unicef

The monsoon season adds to the pressure as heavy rains could restrict access to these centres for many children. It’s not only the child friendly spaces that are affected by the monsoon season – everything in the camps is at risk. Kutupalong is one of the largest refugee camps in the world – in April it was estimated that more than 604,000 people were living there. From one of the high points, I could see nothing but a sea of tarpaulin shelters. They stretched from where I was standing all the way to the distant horizon, where hills mark the border with Myanmar. Under every tarpaulin is a family.

It’s horrific to think that the devastation these families have already experienced is being compounded by the destruction caused by the heavy rains. Now monsoon season has hit, the Rohingya community will soon be in desperate need of clean water, health facilities and safe latrines. If people aren’t supported, the situation will be unimaginably bad.

On my return to London I couldn’t stop thinking about the vulnerability of the refugees in the camp. You could never really escape the stench from the river of sewage, which often flowed directly past people’s homes. When the camps flood, children will be among the most vulnerable – they’re particularly susceptible to waterborne diseases, such as cholera, which can have a devastating impact and can sometimes be fatal.

As I reflected on the conversations I’d had while in the camps, it struck me how often they turned to what were then the imminent rains. I spoke with countless people in Bangladesh and they all asked: “What will happen to us?”

The situation in the refugee camps speaks both to the worst acts of humanity, and to the staggering amount of hope that exists – but it’s abundantly clear that organisations like Unicef must be provided with the support they need to do their work. The Rohingya population have faced so many atrocities. It is vital that, one year on, we don’t forget them.

• Visit Unicef’s website to support its work with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh


Michael Sheen

The GuardianTramp

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