More than half of the Rohingya refugees who have fled Myanmar in the past three weeks are children, including hundreds who traveled without family members, putting them at particular risk in cramped, muddy camps in Bangladesh, aid workers say.
The United Nations says up to 400,000 Rohingya have fled the state of Rakhine in western Myanmar since Aug. 25 and are now struggling to find food, shelter and clean water in Bangladesh.
“The camps are totally overcrowded,” said Christophe Boulierac, a spokesman for Unicef. “It’s very muddy and raining every day.”
Of those who have made it to Bangladesh since Aug. 25, about half arrived last week, Mr. Boulierac said, placing extreme pressure on the already struggling relief operations.
“Very frankly speaking, we are scaling up, but it is such an unprecedented influx,” he said.
As of Friday, Unicef had counted 1,267 children at the camp who had been separated from their families.
Amid the disorder of the rapidly expanding refugee settlements in Bangladesh, the unaccompanied children are at particular risk for human trafficking, sexual abuse, child labor and child marriage, Mr. Boulierac said.
Unicef has set up 41 spaces for children to relax and play, some of which can be moved around the camps. The sites also make it easier for aid workers to identify which children have traveled alone or have been separated from their families.
The needs of the children include food and nutritional support, basic health care and psychological counseling. More than 18,000 children have received help through the child-friendly spaces since Aug. 25.
But with more than 230,000 children estimated to have arrived in Bangladesh, many more will need help, Mr. Boulierac said.
The United Nations Population Fund estimates that two-thirds of the refugees are women and girls, 13 percent of whom are pregnant or breast-feeding. It has sent dozens of midwives to help with their needs in the refugee camps.
And the numbers are likely to grow, Mr. Boulierac said. “The worrying news is we don’t see any indication that this influx is decreasing.”
The Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, have been pushed out of the country’s west for decades. They have been deprived of citizenship rights and are often confined to villages with little freedom to travel and work.
Rohingya in Rakhine had already been living under a harsh security campaign that came after attacks by militants in October last year. An attack on Aug. 25 by a Rohingya militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on police posts and a military base in Rakhine touched off a renewed military crackdown that led to the mass exodus.
The military and Buddhist vigilantes have burned villages and massacred civilians, according to human rights groups and refugees. Bangladesh has also complained to Myanmar about reports of land mines placed along their shared border, which have injured and killed civilians in recent weeks.
Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, called the military campaign “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and a clear violation of international law. The Nobel Peace Prize laureates Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan and Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa have challenged Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar, to recognize the suffering of the Rohingya. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for leading a long campaign against military rule in her country.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who canceled plans to attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York next week, has maintained the belief that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. While the Rohingya trace their history in Myanmar for generations, the belief that they are foreigners is widely held there.
Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Peace Prize laureate, sent a letter with the signatures of 12 Nobel laureates and others calling for the United Nations Security Council to take immediate action to stop the military attacks on civilians. “The arguments that the Myanmar government is using to deny Rohingyas their citizenship are ludicrous,” the letter said.
Despite the international condemnation of Myanmar, efforts to punish its government over the Rohingya crisis have been limited.
Journalists and human rights investigators have been largely barred from Rakhine. A group of journalists were taken there on a government-supervised trip last week, and some reported seeing Buddhist men leaving a Rohingya village they had just set ablaze.
This week, Senator John McCain of Arizona, who is also chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he would kill funding to expand cooperation between the United States and Myanmar militaries “given the worsening humanitarian crisis and human rights crackdown against the Rohingya people.”
The lack of access has forced human rights groups to rely on satellite data and the testimony of people who have fled to document the extent of destruction in Rakhine. Amnesty International said Thursday that it had recorded 80 large-scale fires in the state since Aug. 25, while the same period in the past four years had no blazes of such size on record.
Human Rights Watch said Friday that 62 villages in Rakhine had been targeted in arson attacks since Aug. 25. “Our field research backs what the satellite imagery has indicated — that the Burmese military is directly responsible for the mass burning of Rohingya villages in northern Rakhine State,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Friday.