By Feliz Solomon / Dhaka, Bangladesh
October 22, 2017

U.N. agencies convene Monday in Geneva to request a sum of $434 million to fund a massive emergency response to the Rohingya refugee crisis in eastern Bangladesh, where nearly 600,000 people have crossed the border after fleeing recent violence in Myanmar.

The crisis began in the days after an Aug. 25 attack on state security forces by Rohingya insurgents, which triggered a brutal military crackdown on civilians that has sent more than half of the total Rohingya population fleeing in what may be the fastest cross-border exodus in modern history.

The Myanmar military has been accused of a campaign of “ethnic cleansing.” Refugees arrived alleging gang rape, extrajudicial killings and the burning of hundreds of villages, which rights groups have documented in satellite imagery. The government of Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, denies the atrocities.

But eight weeks later, waves of desperate and dehydrated refugees continue pouring across the Bangladeshi border, seeking sanctuary in what is becoming the world’s largest displacement camp. The government of Bangladesh, itself an impoverished country that does not recognize the Rohingya as refugees, has allowed them entry but is struggling to cope with the world’s most rapidly developing humanitarian crisis.

Read more: Will the Rohingya Exodus Be Aung San Suu Kyi’s Fall From Grace?

The response needs are many in what aid workers describe as a textbook example of a “complex crisis.” An already enormous refugee population — some 400,000 Rohingya have lived in camps along the border since fleeing earlier violence in the 1970s, 1990s and in Oct. 2016 — more than doubled in the span of just a few weeks, as others continue to arrive each day.

The sprawling camp complex is now home to about a million people, most of whom live in flimsy bamboo structures with tarpaulin rooftops and no electricity beyond a few solar panels salvaged by refugees as they fled. U.N. staff have warned that the crowded and filthy compound, comprising two decades-old camps called Kutupalong and Balukali which have now become a sort of city for the displaced, is ripe for an outbreak of disease such as cholera or malaria.


UNICEF says about 60% of Rohingya refugees are children, many suffering from severe acute malnutrition. The agency, which has requested $76 million to support life saving assistance over the next six months, said last week that children are arriving at the astounding rate of up to 12,000 per week. Once settled in the relative safety of the displacement camp, they face additional threats of malnutrition, disease and vulnerability to human trafficking.

Read more: The Rohingya Exodus Surges Again, as Thousands More Arrive at the Bangladesh Border

The U.N.’s World Food Program, the compound’s primary nutritional provider, says it needs $77 million to assist some one million people. The agency currently has only about 30% of the funding it needs, which will keep operations up through November, but still requires an additional $54 million to maintain its work through February. WFP provides rice, lentils and soybean oil that the refugees need to survive, as well as high-nutrition supplements for the many pregnant women and malnourished children under five among them.

UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency, will request $84 million to assist what it has deemed a “level 3 emergency,” the body’s most severe crisis alert. The agency to date has delivered about 500 tonnes of material assistance in five airlifts. The refugee community is completely reliant on such aid, having no livelihood opportunities at present.

High-level delegates attending Monday’s conference include members of a Central Emergency Relief Fund managed by the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Members include the governments of Canada, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S. Rights groups worry that existing funds, allocated in six-month intervals amid a decades-long crisis that has shown no sign of easing soon, are not enough to meet the extreme humanitarian needs.

Amnesty International called Friday for new assistance from other Asian countries to help share the burden suddenly thrust on Bangladesh, itself a poor country and among the world’s most densely populated. Omar Waraich, Amnesty’s Deputy South Asia Director, called for an immediate and sustained response to the “unprecedented crisis.”

“This means that more countries, particularly those from the region, need to play a much bigger role and share the burden of responsibility,” Waraich said in a statement. “Bangladesh, a poor country which has shown extraordinary generosity, cannot be left to deal with this alone.”

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