A man shows me the bullet scar in his arm and points in the direction of the border. Then he makes a cutting gesture across his throat and points to the children standing round us. No translation is needed.
The refugee camps that have sprung up along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border need to be seen to be believed.
“There are children everywhere; they make up some 60% of the population”
The first thing that strikes me is the overcrowding. Over half a million people have arrived in Bangladesh in just a single month, all fleeing violence and atrocities in Myanmar. The narrow muddy paths into the camps are jammed with people, making it precarious to drive in with relief supplies. Thousands of tiny makeshift shelters are clustered together, narrowly spaced apart and each home to one, two or even more families.
It’s hard to imagine having to live in such teeming conditions.
The second thing I notice are the numbers of children. There are children everywhere; they make up some 60% of the population. A few are smiling but many more are sullen and reserved, their silence speaking volumes about the atrocities they have endured or witnessed. Thousands are unaccompanied or separated from their parents.
In a tough, crowded and uncontrolled environment, these children are enormously vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. One of Save the Children’s most pressing tasks is to find ways to protect them.
These children and their families have fled horror that you and I can scarcely imagine. A woman describes how her house was set on fire as she witnessed two of her sons dragged to the street and shot point-blank.
Her journey to Bangladesh with her youngest son took 13 days on foot. The children in the camps cannot sleep for nightmares. They are absorbed by fear that someone might come and attack them again, setting fire to their new homes. These children will need a huge amount of love and support to recover from the psychological damage that has been inflicted on them.
To compound the pain that these children have already endured, the living conditions here are as bad as anything I’ve seen in fifteen years of aid work. There is not enough food. While distributions are happening – Save the Children is feeding thousands and rapidly scaling up – the refugees are still hungry and many children are visibly malnourished.
“The misery and desperation on both sides of the border is why we must act, and act fast”
Perhaps of even greater concern, there is almost no effective sanitation; open defecation is the norm and water sources are clearly contaminated. This is a fixable problem but it needs urgent action, otherwise these families that have already suffered so much will face an entirely predictable – and deadly – health crisis.
The misery and desperation on both sides of the border is why we must act, and act fast. The violence in Myanmar must be ended immediately – every effort is needed by governments like the UK to achieve this, and also to secure access for humanitarian aid inside Myanmar.
The UK Government has led the charge at the United Nations Security Council in calling for an end to the violence, but with people continuing to flee their homes every day, this effort must urgently be redoubled.
“Without an immediately increased relief effort […] we risk losing an entire generation of children to trauma, exploitation, desperation and destitution”
Meanwhile, the Bangladeshi government should be commended for opening their borders and partnering with organisations on the ground, but it is clear from the scale of the challenge – to construct and support the equivalent of a medium-sized city from scratch – that an international effort is needed.
The UN estimates $200 million will be needed over the next six months to provide assistance to those fleeing Myanmar. The UK Department for International Development has already pledged some very welcome funds but more will be needed, from the government and the public alike. Without an immediately increased relief effort we not only risk a public-health catastrophe, but we risk losing an entire generation of children to trauma, exploitation, desperation and destitution.
As a British aid worker, I am deeply proud of my country’s response to humanitarian crises around the world. I want to see us leading the way here too. We have the power to protect the children I have met in the camps here, to save their lives and to transform their futures. There isn’t a moment to lose.