Rohingya refugee crisis 2017-21

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Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya are a mainly Muslim ethnic minority group numbering about 1.1 million people in Myanmar. Around 90–95% of the Rohingya live in northern Rakhine. 

The government of Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country, denies the Rohingya citizenship and excluded them from the 2014 census, refusing to recognise them as a people. 

It sees them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

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What happened in Rakhine state?

In the early hours of 25 August 2017, violence broke out in Rakhine State, Myanmar.  

Rohingya people’s villages were set ablaze, entire families were killed and women and girls faced atrocities including sexual violence

The majority of people who fled travelled by foot, walking through jungle and rough terrain, or by boat, taking the perilous journey across the Bay of Bengal.  

As of August 2020, approximately 600,000 Rohingya remaining in Myanmar continue to be denied freedom of movement, equal access to citizenship and essential services. According to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), even if repatriation started today, it could take as long as 13 years. 

Entire families of Rohingya refugees are living under just one sheet of plastic in Balukhali camp in Coxs Bazar, Bangladesh, after fleeing from Myanmar's Rakhine state. Photo: Md. Sariful Islam/ActionAid

Who is most affected by the Rohingya refugee crisis?

ActionAid Bangladesh reports that women are heavily affected, as well as those with disabilities and the elderly. A high number of unaccompanied children also arrived in Bangladesh who either lost their parents during the displacement or were brought over by their extended family members. 

ActionAid staff in Cox’s Bazar estimate that approximately 60% of refugees are single mothers.

During the monsoon and cyclone seasons, hailstorms, heavy wind and rain, and lightning put lives at risk. Without additional support, the lives of the most vulnerable Rohingya refugees are at risk. Flooding can prevent thousands of refugees from receiving aid and if toilets and wastewater overflow, the risk of waterborne diseases spreading is high. 

Farah Kabir, the Country Director of ActionAid Bangladesh, said: “Rohingya women and girls continue to bear the brunt of the refugee crisis. Those we work to support are bearing the physical, and mental scars of what they’ve experienced – including shocking sexual violence, pregnancy through rape, and a painful and dangerous journey to Bangladesh." 

Today, amid extreme poverty and desperation, women and girls in the camps face intimate partner violence, forced marriage, and the threat of sexual violence. Now more than ever, the international community must listen to these women, who are claiming their rights and calling for a just solution to their plight. 

ActionAid appreciates the role of Government of Bangladesh in welcoming and providing safety to the Rohingya and for its commitment to not forcibly returning them to Myanmar as well as the people of Bangladesh who are hosting and supporting the refugees. 

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What is ActionAid doing in Bangladesh to help Rohingya refugees?

Since 2017 ActionAid has supported hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, to save lives, improve living conditions in the camps, and prevent and respond to violence against women and girls.  

In 2020 alone, our response reached more than 237,000 people. As part of this response: 

  • We supported 2,361 people, mainly women, with counselling, case management and other referral services in response to cases of gender-based violence 
  • We reached 91,715 people with projects to prevent gender-based violence, including awareness-raising sessions and even interactive theatre 
  • We reached 25,370 people with projects to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and support people most affected by the coronavirus pandemic. This included door-to-door visits to raise awareness and Covid-19 and how to stay safe. 

We are also working to improve the safety and overall living conditions in the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar. Between January and March 2021 we have built and repaired thousands of metres of stairways, pathways, bridges and drainage systems.  

Our support during the coronavirus pandemic 

The Covid-19 pandemic has made the situation for Rohingya refugees even more critical.

As a result, ActionAid has been working tirelessly to improve access to water, sanitation and hygiene, as well as PPE and supplies like buckets and menstrual products.  

Between January and March 2021, this included: 

  • The distribution of 31,000 face masks 
  • The installation of 40 handwashing stations 
  • Hygiene awareness sessions including 400 participants
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How we're helping Rohingya women and girls

Women and especially mothers have specific needs, and this is never more evident than during a humanitarian disaster. 

That's why ActionAid built six Women’s Safe Spaces in Cox’s Bazar – centres where mothers can breastfeed in private, receive hygiene kits, emotional support, and where needed access medical referrals. We've helped at least 15,000 women and girls through our Women's Safe Spaces.  

Helping refugees manage their periods with dignity 

In humanitarian disasters across the world, women, girls and people who menstruate tell us that amongst the items that they need the most are sanitary towels, wipes and soap, so that they can manage their periods hygienically and with dignity

That's why we've distributed over 40,000 hygiene kits containing menstrual products, soap, clean underwear and disinfectant to help Rohingya refugees manage their periods safely, and prevent the spread of waterborne diseases.  

Supporting safety and livelihoods 

We've also set up 33 women-led ‘WATCH’ committees to monitor and prevent violence against women and girls and encourage women to access one of the women’s safe spaces. 

We've provided at least 7,383 families with solar powered lights. These help women and girls feel safer moving around the camp at night. 

And we've supported at least 360 Rohingya women and girls with sewing training, helping them to build a livelihood for the future. 

ActionAid works with women-led committees of refugees in the camps, to ensure the aid we provide is appropriate, meets the needs of women and girls and gets to the people who need it most.  

These women-led committees raise awareness about health and hygiene issues, and encourage women and girls to raise concerns and report their experiences of violence. Through these leadership opportunities, ActionAid is supporting women to play an active role in community organisation and participate in decision-making processes.

A huge thank you 

We'd like to say a huge thank you to everyone who makes our support for Rohingya refugees possible - including the Disasters Emergency Committee, The Alborada Trust and many individual supporters.

Top image: Nur (13) and Yesmin (8) are living in the Rohingya camp in Coxs Bazar, Bangladesh. Fabeha Monir/ActionAid

Page updated 17 November 2021