Devastating Malnutrition Cripples Rohingya’s Child Refugees Caught In Catastrophic Public Health Crisis

A quarter of Rohingya Muslim children living in Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh are suffering from malnutrition, according to a report by the Centre for Disease Control. Around 26,000 Rohingya Muslims live in the camp, where they are faced with shortages of food and water, and poor sanitation causes outbreaks of diarrhoea and respiratory infections. The coming rainy season will greatly increase the risk of infections, with the severity of disease causing the greatest suffering in the malnourished and the young.

The nutrition assessment found that 24% of Rohingya children surveyed were malnourished, 7% life-threateningly so. 48% of children were suffering from anaemia, 40% from diarrhoea and almost 60% had acute respiratory infections. These figures far exceed the global threshold of a public health emergency, and further add to the suffering of those who survived the horrors of the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. These desperate statistics come as no surprise, with Edouard Beigbeder, a spokesman for UNICEF Bangladesh saying “our worst fears have been confirmed”, adding that “refugee children who have already endured unimaginable suffering in fleeing their homes are now facing a public health crisis”.

Chronic malnutrition stunts growth and brain development, and drastically weakens an individual’s ability to fight illnesses such as diarrhoea, which runs rife in the camp. UNICEF has already treated over 2000 acutely malnourished children, and conducted mass vaccination programs in camps. However, aid workers have warned that refugees are “essentially starving” before they have even crossed the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh. Myanmar has blocked UN aid agencies from delivering supplies of food, clean water and essential medicines in recent months, and further deliveries had been suspended “because of the security situation and government field-visit restrictions”. Beigbeder argues that “we need far more attention to the crisis”, and hopes that greater international pressure will force the country’s impassive leader, Aung San Suu Kyi to allow access to aid agencies, and return of the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority before monsoon season devastates refugee camps.

Nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims, a stateless ethnic group, have fled Myanmar (Burma) to neighbouring Bangladesh, since violence erupted in Rakhine State on August 25th, 2017. Myanmar’s Government sees the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and the military says it has only been targeting the minority’s Arsa militants. However, the United Nations has called the offensive “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. The military, supported by local Buddhist mobs have reportedly attacked and killed Rohingya civilians, raping women and girls, leaving only burnt villages in their wake. This has triggered one of the fastest growing humanitarian crises in the world, causing a mass exodus of deeply traumatised people caught between deadly violence in Myanmar, and a desperate public health crisis in Bangladesh.

For Rohingya’s refugees, crippling malnutrition and infections brings further despair to an already desperate situation. With the impending rainy season and prospect of infectious disease outbreaks causing further devastation, the deepening public health crisis may further add to the death toll caused by the ethnic cleansing. The international aid community is providing a lifeline of food, clean water and essential medicines to refugee camps where it can, but these efforts need to be stepped up to ensure that malnutrition doesn’t stunt the growth and cause long term physical harm to Rohingya’s already traumatised children. The greatest onus however, lies with Aung San Suu Kyi to allow access for aid workers into the country to alleviate the starvation of the Rohingya. Safe passage for the persecuted group back into the country is also needed before the rainy season causes further chaos. In failing to do so, she is sealing the fate of hundreds of thousands of people, and offering them no hope for the future.