"Houses were burning. There were rocket launchers. They were killing people after arresting them, that’s why we fled here.” —Umme, 12
This is a story no child should tell. Yet, it’s an all-too-familiar one in the Bangladesh refugee settlements, where UNICEF is helping Rohingya survivors of what UN Human Rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has deemed “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Now, Umme and hundreds of thousands vulnerable Rohingya children like her are living in the path of a looming threat. With monsoon season here, the overcrowded temporary settlements they call home could be swept away, subjecting the 700,000 refugees already requiring humanitarian assistance to even greater risk.
Situated on cleared land that barely holds the 702,000 Rohingya who've arrived since August, refugees' tents perch on barren hillsides that heavy rains could turn to mud. Some 200,000 people live in areas vulnerable to landslides and flooding, which if severe could destroy the camps’ fragile sanitation infrastructure and contaminate the water supply. For the thousands of children who've arrived malnourished with weakened immune systems, the spread of disease and waterborne illnesses could pose great danger. (Continued below.)
UNICEF is now mobilizing to keep Rohingya children safe, healthy and dry during cyclone season. Vital infrastructure is being reinforced and medical supplies prepositioned to handle the rise of illnesses like cholera — an acute diarrhoeal disease that can kill a child within hours if not treated. The water supply is being treated, and supplies families will need to keep their water safe and clean — hygiene kits, water purification tablets, chlorine, soap and buckets — stockpiled. Vaccination teams are administering the oral cholera vaccine to 1.1 million people, and community volunteers are fanning out to educate families about how to protect themselves.
But it’s a race against time to spare Umme and Rohingya refugee children like her another fight for their lives.
“I’ve been in some difficult places,” says Martin Worth, UNICEF’s Head of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) for Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. “But this could get so much worse. What is already a dire humanitarian situation could become a catastrophe.”