AS THE desperate plight of the Rohingya – who are fleeing genocide in Burma (Myanmar) – continues to make international headlines, there has been an increasing number of aid organisations offering their support.
This now includes Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), the European rescue operation initially established to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean sea. Following a three-week journey from Europe, the MOAS vessel, the Phoenix, and crew have arrived in Bangladesh, to begin work in Southeast Asia.
The organisation was founded in 2014 in response to tragedies in 2013 in which over 2,400 men, women and children drowned in the Mediterranean fleeing conflict in Libya, Syria and Iraq. It became the first search and rescue operation of its kind, and over the past three years, the organisation rescued and assisted over 40,000 refugees.
As the crisis of the Rohingya people intensified with the Burmese military’s brutal campaign of violence, extrajudicial killings, gang rapes, and clearance operations, MOAS made the the decision to redeploy its operations from the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia, with the aim of using their skills, resources and experience to deliver humanitarian assistance and aid to the Rohingya people.
As co-founder and director Regina Catrambone explains, the decision to move operations was motivated by compassion for the powerless Rohingya communities: “We cannot remain indifferent to people’s suffering because they are denied the chance to have a decent and safe life. We cannot ignore violence and abuse, no matter where they occur. For this reason, with MOAS Italia we decided to be the voice of the voiceless and, once again, we are committed to assisting the most vulnerable people in a remote and almost forgotten area.
Solidarity, mercy and brotherhood have no borders.”
Despite international condemnation of Burma’s military operations against the Rohingya, a campaign the United Nations has called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, attacks by armed forces continues uninterrupted. Since Aug 25, when the latest round of violence commenced, over 500,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh.
According to witnesses on the ground, the number of refugees crossing the Burma-Bangladesh border had slowed to around 2,000 a day at the beginning of October. However, on Oct 11, that number jumped significantly to 11,000 refugees with reports from local residents of renewed gunfire in northern Rakhine State, an area which remains off-limits to aid workers and journalists.
Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency, warned that, “We’re back in a situation of full alert as far as influxes are concerned,” adding, “It’s still a situation that has potential to worsen.”
This latest Surge of Rohingya refugees has put humanitarian agencies back on “full alert”, making the work of the UN, the Red Cross, MOAS, and other aid agencies, essential for the safety and well being of these refugees.
MOAS Italia team has established their first Aid Station in Shamlapur, a fishing village in Bangladesh where many Rohingya refugees arriving by boat have taken shelter. The MOAS team, which is made up of experienced doctors, nurses, paramedics and logisticians from Bangladesh and Italy, has begun setting up specialist units designed to provide medical and humanitarian relief.
The station in Shamlapur will serve as a semi-permanent satellite facility to a makeshift refugee settlement and with a fully-equipped medical tent and sanitation capabilities. The condition of the refugees arriving at Shamlapur is alarming, with many children, and newborn infants, suffering from severe malnutrition. Each day the MOAS medical team – comprised of a medical coordinator, 10 doctors and three nurses – will conduct medical triage within the makeshift settlement.
MOAS Italia is coordinating its activities with the other agencies on the ground, under the Inter-Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) coordination mechanism run by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
With hundreds of thousands refugees living in makeshift settlements with little or no access to sanitation or health care, the IOM has determined that primary health care coverage is a priority which needs to be urgently established in all new settlements. Immunisation for preventable diseases is urgently required, while poor sanitary conditions in the settlements mean that outbreak preparedness is critical.
In planning for the longer term, Bangladesh has asked the IOM to coordinate the building of a mega-refugee camp on 1,200ha of land, bringing refugees from numerous small settlements into one location. The mega site, which intends to accommodating around 800,000 Rohingya Muslims, would be one of the world’s largest refugee camps.
However, the UN is warning that Bangladesh’s plans to build such a large camp could heighten the risks of diseases such as cholera spreading quickly in that country, As Robert Watkins, the UN resident coordinator in Bangladesh explained, “When you concentrate too many people into a very small area, particularly the people who are very vulnerable to diseases, it is dangerous. If there are infectious diseases that spread, that will spread very quickly.”
In recent days, Burma’s widely-criticised de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has finally released plans to sideline the military in an effort to provide aid to the Rohingya. State Counsellor Suu Kyi’s aid plan includes the establishment of a civilian-led agency, with foreign assistance, to deliver relief and resettlement for Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state.
As an adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi explained to the Guardian newspaper, “It is going to be an implementation unit and will introduce a degree of transparency into the government that will allow the international community to participate and provide aid.”
However, it remains to be seen just how realistic Aung San Suu Kyi’s aid initiative will be. The process of repatriating Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh will face considerable hurdles, and considering that the majority of these refugees lack the documentation likely to satisfy the military that they have a right of live in Burma, it looks like it will be a long time before the Rohingya are able to return home.