What is the Rohingya refugee crisis?

What is the Rohingya refugee crisis?

This month marks almost two years since the first Rohingya refugees began fleeing en-masse across the border into Bangladesh to escape violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar.

The Rohingya people have faced decades of systematic discrimination, statelessness and targeted violence.  Many had already left Myanmar over the past decades due to conflict, however in August 2017, the violence dangerously escalated, and led to the mass movement of more than 719,920 Rohingya people fleeing to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. 

According to the latest estimates, Cox’s Bazar is now home to about 932,940 Rohingya refugees, over half of whom are children, effectively making it the largest refugee camp in the world.  Unfortunately, the lack of political progress to resolve the crisis means that safe and voluntary return is unlikely in the short term meaning that this emergency crisis has become protracted in nature.

Cox's Bazar Refugee Camp, Bangladesh is the largest displacement camp in the world. Photo: Abir Abdullah/ Concern Worldwide
Cox's Bazar Refugee Camp, Bangladesh is the largest displacement camp in the world.

Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya are a mainly Muslim ethnic minority group. Before the crisis, around 1.1 million Rohingya lived in Myanmar, the majority in Rakhine state, and had done for centuries. However as a ‘stateless’ people, without recognition as citizens, they were often persecuted and lived in chronic poverty.

A mass exodus, 2017

In the late summer of 2017, violence forced huge numbers of Rohingya to flee their homes.  They escaped burning villages, and horrific bloodshed, and many saw family members killed in front of them. At the peak of the crisis, thousands were crossing into Bangladesh daily in search of refuge. Some had walked for days, across mountains or through jungle.  Others had crossed the Bay of Bengal in ramshackle boats. Many people died on the perilous journey. 

Those who made it to Bangladesh were hungry and exhausted, many were also sick and in need of urgent medical attention. As well as that, having fled conflict, they were traumatised and in need of protection.

Rohingya men rebuilding their tents before the monsoon arrives, Jamtoli, Ukhiya. Photo: Abir Abdullah/Concern Worldwide
Rohingya men rebuilding their tents before the monsoon arrives.
 A man tightens ropes to stop a tarp moving in the wind, Balukhali camp, Cox's Bazar. Photo: Paddy Dowling/DEC/Concern Worldwide
A man tightens ropes to stop a tarp moving in the wind, Balukhali camp, Cox's Bazar

Cox’s Bazar – Bangladesh’s fourth largest ‘city’

Most Rohingya refugees are concentrated in the Cox’s Bazar district on the southeast coast of Bangladesh.  The villages where most of the refugee camps are located in Ukhiya and Teknaf Upazilas in Cox’s Bazar, are among the most socially deprived area in the country.  

Such a massive number of people arriving over a short period of time has put a huge amount of strain on the existing community and services in the area; and the host population, itself already very poor, is struggling to cope.  The price of most food and other items has increased as demand has risen.

The further threat of monsoon and cyclone season

Due to the influx of people, overcrowding is a major challenge in the camps and the vast majority of the refugees live across 34 camps.  With the support of the Government and humanitarian community, refugees have gained access to some basic services but they remain highly dependent on short-term aid, and are living in precarious conditions in overcrowded camps, where conditions are difficult and sometimes dangerous, especially during Bangladesh’s long monsoon and cyclone seasons.  

Makeshift huts and tents have been erected on mud slopes which are vulnerable to landslides.  Many of the hastily built structures of tarpaulin and bamboo are not fit to withstand the hailstorms, heavy wind, rain and lightning during the imminent monsoon and cyclone season.  Flooding also brings with it the threat of waterborne diseases to an already vulnerable population. 

Concern is working with the local Government and partners on the ground to ensure readiness to respond, if a severe weather event occurs, to save the lives and assets of affected communities.

40-year-old widow Tayma* receives a dignity kit from Concern. It consists of a torch, bucket and lid, soap, flip flops, shawls, underwear and sanitary pads. Photo: Abir Abdullah/ Concern Worldwide
40-year-old widow Tayma* receives a dignity kit from Concern.
Sadia* (12), niece of Lukia*, collects water into the container received from Concern Worldwide. Photo: Abir Abdullah/Concern Worldwide
Sadia* (12), niece of Lukia*, collects water
A Concern Worldwide distribution of 1,150 dignity kits, supported by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) and UK’s Department for International Development (DfID). The kits consist of a torch, bucket and lid, soap, flip flops, shawls, underwear and sanitary pads Photo: Abir Abdullah/ Concern Worldwide
Dignity kits, containing a torch, soap, flip flops, shawls, underwear and sanitary pads.

Concern’s emergency response

Concern started working in Cox’s Bazar in September 2017, and initially focused on the immediate needs of the population - by providing much needed food items and later, with funding from the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), began distributing non-food-items. 

Concern currently provides nutrition services to women and children in nine locations with support from our donors such as UNICEF and the World Food Programme (WFP). Each month, Concern volunteers, comprised largely of Rohingya refugees, conduct house-to-house visits over the difficult geographical terrain and have screened over 49,500 children under five years of age for malnourishment, admitting 6,140 to our outpatient clinics.

However, there is still a huge amount of need. Over half of the inhabitants of Cox’s Bazar are children and sadly, one in six Rohingya children under the age of five in the camps are malnourished, which equates to around 32,000 children that need urgent support and care.

We remain hopeful that a solution to this crisis will be found and that there will be the safe and peaceful return of the Rohingya to their homes. In the meantime, a continued response to the urgent humanitarian needs is required, along with support for a longer-term developmental response.

You can help, by donating now to support Concern’s work with the Rohingya in Bangladesh

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  • 32,000 children under five are malnourished in the world's largest refugee camp

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