By FATIMA SYED, Staff Reporter, Sept. 23, 2017
Standing on the easternmost riverside city of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, in the shadow a Burmese horizon that’s still on fire, Zaid Al-Rawni watched small boats crossing the treacherous waters full of people. They’d go back empty and come back with more people.
A regular and steady flow of dead bodies came alongside the boats, as Bangladeshi men and women wait on the other side to bury them.
On the opposite bank, queues of people, as far as Al-Rawni could see, were waiting their turn to cross the river, dead or alive.
“It was chaos, complete chaos,” he said. “When I got there (early last week) the numbers were in the (high) 200,000s. By the time I left, they were talking about 400,000 people who had crossed.”
Al-Rawni is the CEO of Islamic Relief Canada, an aid organization that has been working in the area since May 2008 when cyclone Nargis caused the worst natural disaster in Burmese history. Islamic Relief and the Canadian chapter of the Islamic Circle of North America are the only Canadian aid agencies to have gained access to one of the world’s biggest refugee crisis.
Together, they have distributed thousands of food packages, tens of thousands of donations from Canadians and started building shelter.
“The most dangerous thing for this community right now is hygiene,” Al-Rawni said. More than 420,000 people “just showed up overnight. Where are they defecating? Where are they washing their hands?”
With heavy rains constantly pouring in Bangladesh, Al-Rawni is worried by “the real potential for an insane cholera outbreak, worse than Yemen, if we don’t move fast.”
Shaukat Hussain, a member of ICNA Canada, agrees. Camps have had to be evacuated because of heavy rains, he said from Cox’s Bazaar. Landslides have made the temporary tents impossible to live in and forced people to sleep on open roads.
“It’s a matter of humanity suffering and if organizations like the UN and powerful countries do not intervene soon, then, definitely, (the Rohingya) will be eliminated,” Hussain said.
Typically, it takes six or seven weeks after a crisis to set up a fully functional refugee camp with the right volume of aid. Both Al-Rawni and Hussain estimate that hundreds of millions of dollars will be needed to set up a camp with facilities adequate for people of this scale.
Normally this happens under one of the UN agencies, Al-Rawni said. “The UN doesn’t have the capacity to do the work, but they have the capacity to co-ordinate everyone.”
Islamic Relief and ICNA, along with a handful of international aid agencies including the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, Save the Children and Oxfam, are waiting for the Bangladeshi government to decide where the Rohingya refugees will be staying, and to issue the paperwork that will allow these agencies to start work.
For now, the Rohingya “have no life in Bangladesh,” Hussain said. “It’s just like they’re living in Burma. They do not have the fear of death, but they have fears of social and medical problems.”
Al-Rawni has a list of 30 people — and growing — who are waiting for the green light to go to Cox’s Bazaar in southeastern Bangladesh near the border with Burma. Among them are mental-health counsellors, engineers and general do-gooders.
Hussain said aid agencies need to focus on education and development to help the Rohingya survive into the next generation. He wants industrialists to look into the area to create jobs and donations to create schools.
He is also worried for those still stuck in Burma, where aid agencies are still not permitted to enter.
“We do not know yet what their condition is,” Hussain said. “In my last visit, in 2015, they were alive. They were living in bad conditions, but they were alive. Now we just don’t know.”
Al-Rawni and Hussain said there is no official support from the Bangladeshi government at the moment. At present, local communities and private individuals from within the country have banded together to offer as much as they can.
“Obviously, its one of the poorest countries and they don’t have the means to look after that many people for that long,” Al-Rawni said, “but they are doing a phenomenal job right now of being good neighbours.”
Article Courtesy: Toronto Star