On the ground in Rohingya refugee camps
“I would say everybody. I would absolutely say everybody we saw [was] suffering from the effects of the violence and from the trip altogether ... I don’t think we saw anybody in good condition.”
This is what a nurse who worked in the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh told our team at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) as we researched our recently published report: “Sexual Violence, Trauma, and Neglect: Observations of Health Care Providers Treating Rohingya Survivors in Refugee Camps in Bangladesh.”
Health workers we interviewed detailed the extreme violence experienced in Myanmar by hundreds of thousands of the country’s Rohingya ethnic minority in 2017. Patients told trusted health care workers harrowing stories of widespread, systematic attacks carried out by the Myanmar military against the Rohingya, including mass rape and other forms of sexual violence, witnessing the beatings and killing of family members -- all while their homes and land were set ablaze and destroyed. “Most of the cases are very similar,” one health care provider shared. “Families killed in front of them and raped, [survivors] escaped in the bush across the border.”
The violence drove some 720,000 Rohingya women, men, and children to seek safety in Bangladesh. Once here, however, they encountered significant barriers to the medical care they so desperately needed, including limited mental health care services, overburdened health care providers, and stigma around sexual violence survivors. Health care workers told us that some patients could not put their trauma into words.
Female survivors were reluctant to share their stories of rape or sexual assault for fear of rejection or shame by their families and community. The cultural pressure was even worse for survivors who do not identify as females, such as men, boys, and transgender people, which further limits their ability to access health services.
What became clear to us is that the years of violence and forced displacement have had a profound effect on the Rohingya community and will likely impact them for years to come. One psychologist interviewed by PHR shared that most of the Rohingya they saw were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. “They had full-blown symptoms … [They] even didn’t feel comfortable talking to us. We were taking care of them, but they couldn’t manage to trust us completely ... And it was like they came through such a crisis, many of them seemed to be totally blank. No emotion was working on their mind.”
This crisis has not only impacted the Rohingya. The local population in Cox’s Bazar also faces great challenges of their own. The influx of refugees has increased tensions over access to resources and economic opportunities, where poverty has already impacted the lives of many.
Without lived experience, it can be difficult to grasp the severity of the trauma that many of the Rohingya refugees have faced and continue to face. Yet many local residents showed great compassion by selflessly sharing their homes and food with the Rohingya months before international aid organizations arrived.
As researchers and professionals working with the Rohingya population in Bangladesh, we have experienced grief and vicarious trauma of our own from witnessing the suffering in the camps and have needed time and support to process these stories. Mental health services for both refugees and health care workers are severely underfunded, and the lack of support takes a significant toll on the well-being of everyone working in the Rohingya response.
We are also increasingly concerned by the refugees’ delayed healing process and continued trauma. Security in the camps has deteriorated over the last couple of years and sexual and gender-based violence, largely due to intimate partner violence, continue to compound the trauma for the Rohingya. One Rohingya woman told us: “The situation is the same, we’re still experiencing sexual violence. So, what’s the difference if it’s here in the camps or back in Myanmar?”
The recent fire that destroyed the homes of thousands of Rohingya refugees in Nayapara camp is another example of the continuing hardship this community bears while attempting to create a sense of security and normalcy in an unknown environment. The ongoing threat of danger and lack of access to essential resources in these camps can be overwhelming for those who have already faced these challenges in Myanmar.
The recent coup in Myanmar has made the prospect of the Rohingya being able to safely return to Myanmar more difficult to imagine. And the Bangladesh government’s refusal to grant the Rohingya people legal status and documentation as refugees is further denying them access to services and opportunities they urgently need.
The trauma experienced by the Rohingya have impacted us deeply. We hope that compassion and understanding for these people and what they have endured will drive the humanitarian community in Cox’s Bazar, the government of Bangladesh, and the international community to prioritize the ongoing and urgent needs of this population, including providing comprehensive psychosocial and mental health support and granting the Rohingya legal recognition in Bangladesh.
Chloe Pan, Shahanoor Akter Chowdhury, and Sharid Bin Shafique are part of Physicians for Human Rights.