Nothing prepared me for my visit to a Rohingya refugee camp

A trip with a Singapore NGO to Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, opened my eyes to the extent of suffering in this humanitarian crisis.

Shoshanna Chua
Shoshanna Chua

Published: 23 August 2018, 6:59 PM

The Rohingya refugee crisis is the fastest-growing humanitarian crisis today.

After reading that almost one million Rohingya refugees  eke out a living in overcrowded camps with poor sanitation and hygiene, I wanted to support in whatever small way I could.

So while waiting to start my first year at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, I decided to join a five-day volunteer trip with Relief Singapore, a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) that provides humanitarian assistance for the forcibly displaced.

We left for Bangladesh on July 22 in two teams. As I just obtained a diploma in social work from Nanyang Polytechnic, I joined the team providing psychosocial support to women, children and rape victims. The other team was there to help install water filter systems, and together we visited six of the 22 refugee camps. These were some things I saw.

Jamtoli – Camp 15 was set up for the mass exodus of Rohingya people that began on August 25, 2017.

The living conditions

One thing that I was not prepared for, despite having read a lot to prepare myself before the trip, was the smell of rubbish and sewage.

The camps were overcrowded, with temporary housing made of canvas sheets and bamboo in extremely close proximity, affecting people’s chances of escape should a fire break out.

Toilets were situated close to sleeping areas, sometimes right at the doorstep of a temporary home. The lack of a proper sanitation system also meant that sewage waste could possibly contaminate the well water meant for drinking.

Even some of the best toilets in the camps had no locks on the inside.

The issue of overcrowding is perpetuated by the ongoing influx of refugees arriving at the camps. This places pressure for more temporary shelters to be built.

Furthermore, certain ration distribution policies inadvertently encourage refugees to have more children, as larger families are given more rice. On average, each family has about eight children.

Although the sub-standard physical living conditions affected me, something else stood out even more after I spent some time in the camp – how depressing the whole environment was.

During the period of time I was at the refugee camps, I did not see a single adult laugh or smile. Everyone trudged along with the same blank expression.

The emotional scars  

As part of the psychosocial support team, I had the opportunity to meet and talk with Shafiqah (not her real name), 38, who fled to Hakimpara camp in October 2017.

She lives in a special cluster, exclusively reserved for vulnerable widows and their children to ensure their protection. The physical state of this designated area is comparatively better off than other parts of the camp, and 35 families live in this stretch.

A girl makes her way, barefoot, down the corridors of the special cluster. Fragments of broken roof tiles and other large debris stick out from the ground. When it rains, the ground turns into even softer mud, making it easy for one to slip and fall.

Shafiqah shared, through an interpreter, that her husband was a prominent member of the community back in Myanmar. He was taken away along with her 10-year-old son in October last year.

With a forlorn look, she recounted that more than half of the people from her village were killed. After her husband, son, farmland, home, and wealth were taken away, she decided to make the arduous 10-day journey from Rakhine to Bangladesh on foot, carrying nothing but her other child, aged 3.

Now, her routine in Hakimpara consists of waiting for the call to collect rations, and waiting in line again for her turn.

She does not receive the full set of rations because of her husband’s absence. 15kg of rice is supposed to last a month for both her son and herself, but it usually runs out by the third week.

Rohingya refugees form long queues to collect food rations.

Until today, she has not heard from her husband or her other son, and is unsure if they are still alive. She wonders every day if she will ever see them again.


It was heart-breaking to see so many babies with skin infections and children with bloated bellies in the small camp clinics.

According to a doctor at the camp who was from the orthopaedic surgery department in Dhaka Community Hospital, the prevalent medical issues are road traffic accidents (common due to uneven roads), skin diseases and diarrhoea.

The hookworm epidemic is the result of a lack of hygiene, and from frequent, direct contact with infected soil due to a lack of footwear.

Many young children suffer from hookworm infestations which attack their small intestine and lungs, leaving them with a painfully bloated belly.

Our team helped install a water ROAM filter for the delivery room at a Primary Health Centre (PHC).

Resilience amidst suffering  

Described by the United Nations in 2013 as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, the Rohingya narrative is one of unimaginable pain.

But it is also a story of incredible resilience.

Hakimpara – Camp 14: Men work together to build temporary shelters in anticipation of the next influx of survivors, a pressing need as the monsoon season draws near.

I saw men working hard to construct temporary shelters, women walking long distances to the PHCs to obtain medical treatment for their sick infants, and children so eager to learn English.

The community uses whatever resources they have to create some semblance of work – even starting a local marketplace selling excess goods provided by the NGOs.

The only adult I saw smiling was this 80-year-old lady, proud of her auxiliary midwife training certificate from 2009. She beamed with joy as she shared how she successfully assisted in the birth of around 800 babies, thankful that she could contribute back to her community.

Their resilience in the face of adversity was summed up by Shafiqah, who said: “We have lost everything. There is only one thing everyone can do, and that is to look forward to our future.

“The only thing left for us is to rely on our own self-confidence to survive. We have to save our own lives.”

I found the Rohingya children to be friendly and generally more cheerful than the adults. While we were performing a series of songs, two children, aged 9 and 2, were particularly drawn to the crowd, and I got permission to get a photo with them. PHOTO CREDITS: SHOSHANNA CHUA

My trip was short but overwhelming. Even after returning home, the knowledge that such things are happening every day, just around the corner from our safe little island, continues to weigh heavily on my mind.

What sort of future do the children really have? Will they ever get out of the camps? Will this be all they know about life?

With such a complex confluence of historical, religious and political factors, there is so much we cannot do – yet so much we still can, and must.

Perhaps something we can do in response to such jarring reality of our broken world is to look at ourselves – the freedom we enjoy, the education we’re given, the opportunities we have; and think about how we can use these privileges for something bigger than just ourselves.

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