THOUSANDS of children are at risk of contracting diphtheria in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, say humanitarian agencies, as the UN Rights Chief has again warned “shockingly brutal attacks” against Rohingya Muslims in Burma (Myanmar) could amount to genocide.
Since the first cases of diphtheria were detected on Nov 8, some 1,326 suspected cases have been detected in the refugee camps. This number is significant, given only 4,500 cases were reported globally by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2015.
Diphtheria is a potentially deadly, airborne disease which causes glandular swelling and severe respiratory problems. It is significantly more likely to affect children than adults. In Cox’s Bazar, 76 percent of cases are under 15 years old. At least 19 people have died.
Unicef and WHO last week launched a major vaccination campaign against diphtheria and other preventable diseases for all Rohingya children aged six weeks to six years in Bangladesh camps – an estimated 255,000 people.
“Diphtheria usually appears among vulnerable populations that have not received routine vaccinations, such as the Rohingyas,” Unicef Representative to Bangladesh Edouard Beigbeder said. “The outbreak shows a steep rise in cases, an indicator of the extreme vulnerability of children in the Rohingya camps and settlements.”
Health problems are expected to worsen as Bangladesh enters its winter months. Humanitarian agencies are issuing shelter, clothing and other relief items to the affected population.
“Children, who are 55 percent of the Rohingya refugee population, are particularly vulnerable. So are women, and they represent more than half of all refugees in Bangladesh,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Babar Baloch said last Friday.
“An estimated 10 percent are either disabled, have serious medical conditions, or are older persons at risk.”
Mounting evidence of atrocities
As humanitarian agencies work to provide shelter, food and healthcare for the displaced, rights groups are increasingly presenting evidence of mass atrocities in Burma’s Rakhine State.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said last week that surveys conducted in Bangladeshi refugee camps revealed “at least 6,700 Rohingya, in the most conservative estimations, are estimated to have been killed, including at least 730 children below the age of five years.”
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein told the BBC in an interview over the weekend that “on the basis of what we see” it “wouldn’t surprise” him if an international criminal court would find genocide to have taken place in Burma.
According to the International Organization for Migration, at least 655,000 new arrivals have entered Bangladesh since violence broke out on Aug 25, when the Tatmadaw army of Burma launched “clearing operations” in response to attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on security force outposts.
The military has now been accused of committing atrocities, deemed by some as crimes against humanity, including arson, rape, and extrajudicial killings.
As a result of mass exodus, Bangladeshi immigration officials have recorded a total of more than 844,000 people residing in refugee camps within the poor South Asian country’s borders.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) revealed new satellite imagery on Sunday which showed 40 Rohingya villages had been destroyed in Rakhine State since October – contrary to Aung San Suu Kyi’s government’s claim that violence had ceased in the region.
The rights watchdog claimed that “dozens of buldings were burned” in the same week that the Burmese government signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Nov 23 to begin returning refugees from Bangladesh within two months.
“The satellite imagery shows what the Burmese army denies: that Rohingya villages continue to be destroyed. Burmese government pledges to ensure the safety of returning Rohingya cannot be taken seriously,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW.
HRW said that of 354 villages affected by burning, at least 118 had been partially or completely destroyed after Sep 5 – the date Suu Kyi claimed “clearance operations” had ceased.