Kiwis helping on frontlines of Myanmar refugee crisis

Kiwi Red Cross workers Guru Dev Singh (left) and Corinne Ambler have been helping with the refugee crisis in Bangladesh and Myanmar. Photo: Supplied.

As the world looks for a solution to the Rohingya refugee crisis, Kiwis are among those providing a helping hand to those looking for safety. Sam Sachdeva spoke to a Wellington nurse about the conditions facing the refugees fleeing Myanmar.

While most of the recent discussion in New Zealand about refugees has focused on Manus Island, a far more dire crisis is unfolding thousands of kilometres away.

Over 600,000 Rohingya Muslims - once described by the United Nations as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities - have fled Rakhine state to avoid violence.

A crackdown by the Myanmar military, with accusations of extrajudicial killings and gang rapes, has led to heavy international criticism of the country’s government and its de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi - a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters recently announced $2.5 million of extra humanitarian aid for the crisis, bringing New Zealand’s total contribution to $4m.

But some Kiwis are helping out more than financially, working to care for refugees at camps and other facilities on the border of neighbouring Bangladesh.

Wellington nurse Guru Dev Singh, who has just arrived back in New Zealand after more than a month working in Bangladesh, is among those to have seen the suffering first-hand.

Singh, whose work with the Red Cross over nearly a decade has taken her from Africa to the Middle East, says the situation in Bangladesh is a different kind of crisis from those she has encountered previously.

“It is about people fleeing violence, these are the people who do not have any status in their own country and then they’re leaving their country to arrive in a country where they’re taking shelter...they’re relying on the local community, the local government and the international community as well at the same time.”

Most refugees want to go back to Myanmar but feel it’s too unsafe to return, and they arrive in a condition that reflects the toll their travels have taken on them.

“They are very badly malnourished, they are sick, they are injured, they are traumatised, and they’ve faced quite a lot of atrocities which they’ve told us about…

“Their houses have been burnt, their families killed in front of them. When you think about the psychological effects, it’s no different from war.”

Exhausted, dehydrated, lost

Singh says many of those arriving at the border have been walking non-stop for two weeks, hiding from the military with little to no food or water.

“By the time they get to us, they are very, very exhausted and very dehydrated because they haven’t drunk anything, and some of them may have been sick on the way.”

Those compounding factors have led to particular problems with chest infections, while the mental strains of the new environment are also significant.

“By the time they come to us, in a new country, they look absolutely lost - you can see the fear in their eyes.”

Singh was working in Bangladesh as the Red Cross’s emergency medical team coordinator, helping to set up a 60-bed hospital in Ukhiya.

With the next closest facility two hours away, she says the hospital has been busy with both locals and refugees.

“You see how little people can live with, and survive on such a little amount of food and shelter, the resilience of people makes us realise that what we’re doing for them is worthwhile.”

There have already been a number of babies born, including by caesarean, along with more complicated surgeries and treatment for chest infections and pneumonia.

Trying to take care of refugees in great pain causes some pain of its own for the aid workers, she says.

“It’s not easy for people to do that, it’s not easy on anyone - if it didn’t affect us, we wouldn’t be human.

“We have a purpose while we’re there, we’re there to do work and we’re there to help people and make their lives a bit more bearable.”

Seeing how people cope gives the workers a different perspective on life, and an understanding of what’s important and not important.

“You see how little people can live with, and survive on such a little amount of food and shelter, the resilience of people makes us realise that what we’re doing for them is worthwhile.”

Hosts providing a helping hand

The arriving refugees have also put a strain on their Bangladeshi hosts, who are only slightly better off financially but still providing help.

“The host communities do not have a lot to give but yet they’re still welcoming these people.”

While most locals have been welcoming, Singh says aid workers know they need to guard against any sense of envy, with “disgruntlement” among some Bangladeshis.

“There comes a point when the local community will start seeing that everything is being done for the new arrivals but nothing being done for them, so we have to keep the balance right.”

There are benefits for the locals too: the Red Cross hospital is open to them, nearby infrastructure is improved as a result, while the Red Cross and other agencies are bringing money into the community by purchasing materials and hiring local workers.

The biggest worry at the moment, Singh says, is the poor quality of water and sanitation at the camps.

“It doesn’t help when you have thousands and thousands of people coming, and you have to work with difficult terrain and high temperatures and heavy rain and mud.”

Singh says “every little bit goes a long way” in terms of public donations, with the Government’s funding package including a dollar-for-dollar match, up to $1m, for money raised by Kiwi NGOs.

With an American delegation in Myanmar saying the situation has all the hallmarks of an ethnic cleansing, and no firm solution yet to the crisis, the plight of the Rohingya looks set to continue for some time.