Hundreds of thousands of people had to flee their homes after an upsurge in violence broke out against the civilian population in the northwest of Myanmar last year. More than 722,000 people fled to refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, bringing the total number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to 887 000. But the conditions in the overcrowded refugee camps are extremely difficult. Now that the heavy rains of the monsoon season have begun, safety is a major concern. PIN is helping people strengthen their shelters to better protect against the rains and wind, and working with community groups to increase general safety, especially for women and girls. The massive population influx to an area already struggling with poverty and yearly natural disasters has had a serious impact on local inhabitants, affecting environmental resources, agricultural land, and disrupting the local job market. In the future, PIN aims to support both refugees and the host community, fostering better social cohesion.
Supporting women and girls in refugee camps
Many people in the camps fear the uncertainty of the future. They fear having to return to a violent situation in Myanmar, or being stuck in the stagnant life of the refugee camps forever. The trauma and violence they experience while fleeing does not fade easily; combined with the frustration of not being able to work or provide for their families in the camps, some resort to negative coping mechanisms such as attempting illegal and unsafe migration, accepting exploitative working conditions for themselves or their children, marrying girls early, or sexual and domestic violence most often affecting women and girls. The limited services in the camps also create greater risk of violence against women and girls. For example, most camps don’t have enough sanitation and hygiene facilities for the large populations. A lack of separate facilities for women and girls means they are exposed to possible threats or violence while trying to use the toilet or bathe.
In collaboration with our partner organisation, we work with groups of Rohingya volunteers through interactive workshops to increase knowledge about health and safety topics, like prevention of disease, access to healthcare, and how to recognise and prevent violence. We help the groups identify the greatest risks where they live, and come up with ways they can combat these risks themselves. The goal of the workshops includes supporting initiatives by refugees who want to improve the conditions in which they live through their own small projects. Through small cash grants, the volunteer groups (involving men, women, and adolescent boys and girls) design and carry out simple and practical improvements in the camps, like installing lights and locks on temporary toilets or building private bathing facilities for women and girls. Such improvements can reduce the likelihood of safety risks for their families and neighbours.
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Preparation for the upcoming torrential rains
The safety situation in the crowded camps is compounded by the start of rainy season, which occurs annually in Bangladesh from June to September, followed by a greater risk of cyclone in September and October. The refugees’ very basic shelters, and the homes the host community lives in, provide little protection against the strong winds and persistent rain. Because of the severe space limitations in the camps, many shelters were built on steep slopes and may be wiped out by mudslides. Preparing for these situations and strengthening the bamboo shelters to withstand the rainy season has become the main priority for many humanitarian organisations, including PIN.
In cooperation with a local non-governmental organisation, and with the help of material supplied by The International Organization for Migration (IOM), we have trained 300 volunteers on techniques to strengthen their shelters; they have passed their experience down to almost 1,500 households. Now these refugee families are able to help each other and can improve the bamboo structures of their houses, secure the tarpaulin roofs, and dig basic drains to protect the shelters from flooding in the heavy rains.