OVER 48,000 babies are expected to be born in Cox’s Bazar in the coming year, leaving the next generation of Rohingya refugees exposed to the squalor and uncertainty of life as a persecuted minority from day one.
New figures from Save the Children show 130 births a day are expected across 2018 in the Bangladesh refugee camp, which is home to close to a million Rohingya, 655,500 of whom fled from Burma following an outbreak of violent clashes in Rakhine State in August 2017.
Pregnant mothers have made the sometimes weeks-long trip, often by foot and makeshift rafts, to escape the Burmese military clearance operations and find refuge across the border. Their children are born into dangerous and squalid conditions that pose an immediate threat to their health and well-being.
Most of these women are giving birth in makeshift shelters, cobbled together from bamboo and tarpaulin, Daphne Cook, communications manager for Save the Children’s Rohingya response, told Asian Correspondent. This insecure environment, coupled with unhygienic conditions, places these newborns at significant risk.
“The conditions are really squalid. There are not enough toilets, not enough clean water, not enough access to 24-hour healthcare systems,” Cook said.
“These babies are being born at a major disadvantage and as a result are much more likely to suffer from diseases and face an earlier prospect of illness in those first years of life.”
Due to poor sanitation, the camps have become a breeding ground for diseases like diphtheria, measles and cholera, to which newborn babies are particularly vulnerable
Cold, tired and afraid
Hanida, 35, fled Burma with her husband and children after seeing her house and farm lands razed. She was heavily pregnant at the time and would give birth to her youngest child on the floor of a makeshift tent in Bangladesh.
“During the night I felt very cold and tired. I was also afraid. I had no energy and was weak. There was nothing to hold on to. I was trying to grab at anything, but ended up lying down,” Hanida told Save the Children.
“For one hour, I was lying on the ground, feeling tired and without energy to even eat. I was afraid… there was seemingly not enough space to give birth, but somehow I managed.”
As she nurses her infant child, Hanida’s primary concern now is making sure she has enough food to sustain her newborn through breastfeeding. Without nourishment, she is unable to produce enough milk, leaving her ten-day-old son susceptible to malnutrition and disease.
Hanida’s story is a common one in the sprawling camp as aid agencies struggle to meet the demand for healthcare.
Save the Children runs a network of nine community health posts in Cox’s Bazar, each facility sees about 70 people a day, many of whom are expectant or new mothers. Its health adviser Rachael Cummings has made a plea for international assistance in meeting the needs of the camp’s most vulnerable.
“Aid organisations like Save the Children are doing all we can. However, the needs are simply enormous and we don’t have enough resources and funding to ensure every mother and child receives the medical care they require,” Cummings said.
“We urge the international community to step up and provide funding for this response so that vulnerable Rohingya children and families continue to receive the support they so desperately need.”
According to a report from the World Health Organisation (WHO), a quarter of children under five in Cox’s Bazar are suffering from malnutrition. Only 22 percent of births in the area take place in health facilities, so when complications occur, mothers are unable to access expert care.
The future of this next generation, born into refugeedom, remains uncertain. While a deal for repatriation has been agreed between the Burmese and Bangladeshi government, concrete measures to ensure the safety of the returning Rohingya population have not been put in place. Until those assurances are guaranteed, the critical situation at Cox’s Bazar looks set to continue.