COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh — Fatima Kahtun fled her home in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state after government forces raided her village and killed her husband. She crossed the Naf river with her four young children in mid-September — finally safe from the systematic killings and torture that brought her here. But now she’s facing another crisis: keeping her children fed and healthy in squalid refugee camps vulnerable to the spread of infectious diseases like cholera and measles.
“I need food and basic necessities,” she pleaded. “I’m not getting enough help.”
Kahtun is one of thousands of Rohingya refugees struggling in the makeshift camps scattered throughout Cox’s Bazar, a fishing district on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Aid agencies warn that there will be a “humanitarian catastrophe” if conditions here don’t improve immediately.
More than 500,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh since late August when Myanmar’s army unleashed a systematic campaign of mass killing, rape, and torture that the United Nations chief humanitarian said has “the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing.” Sixty percent of Rohingya refugees arriving to Cox’s Bazar are children, according to UNICEF.
The flood of refugees, many of them traumatized and in need of medical attention, has overwhelmed the area — best known to Bangladeshis as a local tourist destination with the world’s longest beach — with the latest inflow bringing the total number of Rohingya refugees living in camps to nearly 800,000.
“The scale of this crisis has truly astounded me,” said Pavlo Kolovos, MSF Bangladesh’s head of mission.
Rohingya refugees are living in overcrowded makeshift camps that lack basic necessities like water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities, Maya Vandenent, UNICEF’s Bangladesh chief of health, told VICE News.
Rehana Begum, a refugee from a village in Bali Bazaar, escaped the grip of a military that was burning people alive and raping young girls. She fled by foot, leaving behind 15 cows, a house, and land. Now she goes day to day wondering how she’s going to feed her children.
“After leaving everything behind, people here don’t even have rice to eat. Our children have to die in the mud,” she said. “The poorest had at least land and a house [back in Myanmar]. But here, we live in the mud.”
Having walked for days or survived perilous river and sea crossings to enter Bangladesh, new arrivals like Begum set up camp wherever they can find the space. Last Monday alone, an estimated 10,000 Rohingya entered Bangladesh. The refugees are often hungry, ill, or injured from their long journeys, but they have to immediately get to work building temporary homes on dirt grounds that slide into streams of thick, ankle-deep mud whenever there’s heavy rain.
“We see that after the rains, water flushes the camps everywhere, including the toilets,” Vandenent said.
These conditions, in combination with a high level of severe malnutrition among children, have sparked concern that high-risk infectious diseases, particularly cholera, measles, and respiratory infections, could break out at any moment. Save The Children estimates that 150,000 refugee children are currently in need of supplementary food, while the WHO reports there have been over 10,000 cases of diarrhea in the last week alone.
Now, the Bangladesh government, working with the WHO and UNICEF, has launched the world’s second-largest oral cholera vaccination campaign in hopes of reaching as many as 900,000 people. The last time such a massive campaign was attempted was in 2016 when Haiti was devastated by Hurricane Matthew, according to UNICEF.
Working with aid partners, UNICEF has built 3,000 new latrines since Aug. 25, but that’s less than a third of its goal of 15,750.
Despite their best efforts, Vandenent warns that an outbreak “could happen anytime soon.”
Kolovos echoed Vandenent’s concerns, warning that due to limited space and unrelenting demand, two major refugees camps may soon merge into a single camp of 400,000 people, creating a “mega camp” that could become the breeding ground for an outbreak.
“Our fear is that we’ll soon be faced with a ‘mega camp’ of huge proportions,” Kolovos said. “All without access to adequate healthcare, food, water, or sanitation.”
In the chaos of endless new arrivals, the Rohingya have managed to create some semblance of community: There are makeshift schools, newly built mosques with their own imams, stores that sell candy and tea. Women try their best to make a home for their families with the few prized possessions they were able to carry, most often pots and pans, or portable solar panels. Within reach, local villagers carry on with their daily lives. A few miles north of the camps, domestic tourists can still be seen sunbathing on the beach.
On October 7, the Bangladesh government announced it would build a new settlement using 1,200 acres of land that’s been set aside for the project, which the IOM says would become the world’s largest refugee camp. But a U.N. official has said that a plan involving a single camp, rather than multiple spread-out ones, may only exacerbate overcrowding and increase the risk of an outbreak.
“We could see thousands of people wiped out within a few weeks or months, not as a result of the violence they’ve fled but highly preventable disease outbreaks that could have been avoided with proper planning and support,” Kolovos said.
Learn more about UNICEF’s efforts to help Rohingya children by clicking here.
Laurel Chor is a producer for Vice News Tonight.