Daily Life of the Rohingya

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With over 688,000 Rohingya refugees now living in the makeshift camps and host villages along the Myanmar border in the Cox’s Bazar region of Bangladesh, societies and communities are adapting as inhabitants begin to build themselves a new life. Although safe from the violence and persecution they have escaped in Myanmar, the refugees’ lives in Bangladesh are far from easy. With limited and interrupted access to basic services, little or no family support and the difficult process of recovering from the psychological and physical aftershocks of trauma, it is with resilience and spirit that these new communities forge connections and social structures. Meanwhile, international and local agencies struggle to build up the infrastructure needed and ensure that basic needs are met.

Time is a precious commodity in an environment where even the most simple tasks are a logistical and practical challenge. With a population made up of 60% children and 30% women, the burden of physical labour often falls on adolescent boys and women, with men in the surrounding residences stepping up in a show of solidarity to support the wider community.

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What happens when a new family arrives depends on whether they are entering into a formal camp, makeshift settlement or host community. Typically, they have access to bamboo and tarpaulin (either from the aid agencies or bought in the local markets) with which to build a shelter.

The shelters in the residential areas are small and often comprise of one room in a low bamboo structure encased in tarpaulin and weighed down by palm leaves and bricks on the roof. The encroaching bad weather means that the camps are prone to waterlogging and damp, meaning that firewood storage and cooking needs to be done inside the house, along with the general living. Groups of families often choose to live communally, allocating separate residences and representatives for duties such as cooking, childcare, sleeping and so on. This division of labour allows more to be made of the limited space and resources available.

The initial days and weeks following arrival are usually spent exploring the area, discovering which NGOs and agencies are active and registering for health checks, food aid packets, collecting water containers / cooking utensils, solar lights or other items being distributed and registering children in the makeshift schools that have been established.

Once the initial collections are done and families are familiar with the services available to them, they must build their time around structured aid deliveries like the weekly food distributions, the school schedules, health/vaccine programs etc. Daily tasks like collecting water and firewood can be distributed to younger members of the family, and it is common to see children holding places in the line at water points or collecting wood and other items from the local distribution points.

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To encourage sanitation and hygiene in the close-knit settlements, latrines are set slightly apart from residences with self-contained cesspits, while clothes washing and bathing areas are along areas of running water wherever possible. The risk of communicable and water borne disease are high and the inter-sector coordination group (ISCG) does its best to set up camps with sanitation, health and water access in mind. It does mean, however, that long distances often need to be travelled between water collection points, latrines, and washing areas.

The business of basic errands can take up much of the day and so the settlements are active also at night. Solar torches and lamps have been distributed through some of the communities to make movement at night less dangerous, as narrow paths through tents are often built alongside rivers and steep slopes. Evening activities can include physical tasks – such as water fetching – which are not done during the day due to the heat and the crowds at the distribution stations. In addition to errands, the evening also gives opportunity to families not living near one another to visit and spend social time together.

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The rapidity with which these communities have been established has challenged both the logistic and infrastructural skills of the agencies providing services in the area, and also the social and inter-personal skills of the community members themselves. Daily life is most successful in these high-pressure, low-resource environments where collaboration and social living is embraced and protected.

Worryingly, this already challenging way of life is about to be put under further pressure as the cyclone and monsoon seasons approach. The heavy rains and strong wins will make even the most basic activities incredibly challenging, will threaten the safety of residential structures and make access to some services difficult, if not impossible. Agencies and communities are doing all they can in these vital weeks to prepare for this eventuality. MOAS is currently raising funds to reinforce its Aid Stations as well as train and equip its staff to provide medical care remotely in the communities for those who are unable to reach the clinics during the floods.

Stay tuned in coming weeks as we keep you up to date on the impact the adverse weather has on life in the camps and please support our ongoing operations however you can. Sign up to our newsletter at the bottom of this page and follow us on social media to spread the word, donate now to contribute to our work, or fundraise with friends to become a part of our activist community.