Humanitarian agencies helping Rohingya refugees who have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar are hoping that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other “non-traditional” donors will respond to the plight of their fellow Muslims.

Aid organizations in Bangladesh said on Wednesday they need $434 million over the next six months to help over a million people – half of whom fled brutal clearance operations in Myanmar’s Rakhine state over the past five weeks. Many are women and children now stuck in dire circumstances near large refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar.

There are fears that many thousands could die if cholera breaks out in the flimsy structures that many of the new arrivals have erected close to the Kutupalong and Nayapara camps, which already housed 300,000 refugees from earlier waves of displacement.

Given the constraints on assistance that traditional Western donors can provide because of the flood of refugees in recent years to countries such as Jordan, Turkey, Greece, Germany, the Sudan and elsewhere, UN agencies are desperately hoping that Muslim nations in the Middle East can rise to the occasion.

A spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) noted during a panel discussion on the refugee crisis at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok on Tuesday night that Saudi Arabia’s KS Relief – the King Salman Center for Relief and Humanitarian Works – had already provided 100 tonnes of food, shelter and core relief items to the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

Urgent need for better facilities

The IOM wants about a quarter of the funding requested – $119 million – to create better facilities with sanitation and proper site management to replace the “spontaneous settlements” that have sprung up in the border regions.

“A rapid response from donors to this response plan is essential if the humanitarian organizations are to move ahead with critical activities to save lives, and provide protection to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh,” UN resident coordinator Robert Watkins.

Journalists who had just returned from the area described the situation as grim. They also predicted that very few refugees were likely to be taken back by Myanmar, because the military opposed the Suu Kyi government’s idea of them returning – particularly Rohingya men of working age who may be encouraged to fight the regime.

“I don’t think there is a realistic prospect for them [the refugees] to come back to Rakhine state for many years,” BBC correspondent Jonathan Head said at the forum. “There are no good answers [to the crisis].”

Head said the sudden exodus of such a vast number of refugees created a “very tricky problem for the Bangladeshi government” because, while the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgent group “doesn’t amount to very much right now’, it was possible the group could strike back against Myanmar – on their own or with Bangladeshi extremists.

“That will come back to haunt the Myanmar military… someone influential needs to tell them ‘You’re messing up your security by doing this’.”

Newly arrived Rohingya refugees make their way to a camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, October 2, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton
Newly arrived Rohingya refugees make their way to a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, October 2, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

But the immediate concern is the well-being of those who fled. The government of Bangladesh has allocated 2,000 acres of land to set up a new camp in Ukhia Upazila, not far from the existing camps.

150km of roads and drains needed

IOM spokesman Chris Lom said 150km of road and drainage had to be built because the current set-up was dangerously congested, with minimal access for vehicles – just a single road that was constantly clogged.

Robert Watkins, UN resident coordinator in Bangladesh, said on Wednesday: “The Rohingya population in Cox’s Bazar is highly vulnerable, many having experienced severe trauma, and are now living in extremely difficult conditions.”

Some 509,000 Rohingya have arrived since August 25, when attacks by the poorly armed ARSA militants triggered a Myanmar military crackdown the United Nations later branded as ethnic cleansing.

Myanmar rejects that. It says its forces are fighting insurgents who claimed responsibility for attacks on about 30 police posts and an army camp on August 25.

The insurgents were also behind similar but smaller attacks in October last year that also led to a brutal Myanmar army response triggering the flight of 87,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh.

The agencies’ plan factors in the possibility of another 91,000 refugees arriving, as the influx was continuing day to day, Watkins said.

“The plan targets 1.2 million people, including all Rohingya refugees, and 300,000 Bangladeshi host communities over the next six months,” he said.

“A rapid response from donors to this response plan is essential if the humanitarian organizations are to move ahead with critical activities to save lives, and provide protection to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh,” Watkins said.

Rohingya refugees who just arrived by wooden boats from Myanmar wait for some aid to be distributed at a relief centre in Teknaf, near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh, October 3, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Rohingya refugees who just arrived by wooden boats from Myanmar wait for some aid to be distributed at a relief centre in Teknaf, near Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, October 3, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Half a million people need food while 100,000 emergency shelters are also needed. More than half of the Rohingya population are children, while 24,000 pregnant women need maternity care, the aid agencies said in their plan.

“Massive and immediate scale-up is required to save lives,” they said. “Without immediate, adequate water, sanitation and hygiene, there will be disease outbreaks.”The Rohingya are regarded as illegal immigrants in Buddhist-majority Myanmar and most are stateless.

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has faced strong criticism for not doing more to stop the violence, although she has no power over the security forces under a military-drafted constitution. She condemned rights abuses and said Myanmar was ready to start a process agreed with Bangladesh in 1993 under which anyone verified as a refugee would be accepted back.

But many Rohingya are pessimistic about their chances of going home, partly because many do not have official papers confirming their residency. Most are also wary about returning without an assurance of full citizenship, which they fear could leave them vulnerable to the persecution and discrimination they have endured for years.