Myanmar refugee © WFP/Saikat Mojumder

Feeding Myanmar’s Refugees

Malnutrition is rising among Rohingya Muslims who fled violence in Myanmar for safety in neighboring Bangladesh. With despair in the refugee camps deepening, only the swift delivery of food aid and other resources can ensure that the indignity of displacement does not lead to even greater human suffering.

COX’S BAZAR – The Rohingya refugee camp in the Bangladeshi port city of Cox’s Bazar is a sea of metal roofs as far as the eye can see, shimmering under an unrelenting sun. Mohammed, a 60-year-old resident, greets me outside his new home and thanks me in breathless rasps for our support. He suffers from a larynx disease, one that could easily be treated with a surgery that he cannot afford. But he is simply grateful to be alive, and far away from the torture and misery he left behind in Myanmar.

Like many of those fleeing Myanmar, Mohammed walked for five days to reach Bangladesh. Sadly, his hardship is only beginning. Like the tens of thousands who huddle here for safety, he ekes out a life for his children and grandchildren on a muddy and infertile slope. What his family eats depends on others, including the sustenance provided by my colleagues at the World Food Programme.

The WFP is meeting emergency food needs for nearly 700,000 Rohingya, supplying nutrient-rich biscuits to new arrivals and feeding registered residents with regular distributions of rice, vegetable oil, and lentils. We are also providing hot meals through community kitchens and delivering supplemental nutrition to pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, and young children.

The Rohingya here are safe from persecution, but the threat of illness and malnutrition pursues them. We are reminded of this every day as we comb the camp to check on families receiving WFP support. The sight of young children playing barefoot in filthy water, or wading in streams flowing with human waste, is ubiquitous. Toilet-building campaigns are underway, but much more is needed to reduce the risk of waterborne-disease outbreaks.

As the number of refugees grows daily, cases of malnutrition, especially among mothers and young children, are rising. Preliminary findings from a joint nutrition assessment show that one in four children is malnourished, and refugees are desperate when they cross the border. Malnutrition rates were already high in northern Rakhine State before the Rohingya fled. Regrettably, the health of the displaced has deteriorated further, owing to the hardship of their journey and the conditions in which they are now living.

To prevent malnutrition from taking hold, the international community needs more resources and more funding across many sectors. In early October, the WFP called for an immediate $77 million in emergency aid. That plea still stands, and with the depth of the suffering increasing, the need for resources grows by the day.

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But food assistance alone is not enough to overcome this crisis. Poor sanitation and unsafe drinking water can just as easily undermine health. Today, more than half of new arrivals tell us that their children are already suffering from diarrhea. When conditions are as dire as they are here, emergency rations are just the first step. Once the immediate pangs of hunger are addressed, refugees need help reinventing diets with diverse, locally sourced fresh foods.

To that end, WFP is seeking to expand our electronic voucher program, a cash card that allows families to choose from 19 food items on the local market, including garlic, greens, onions, and chilies. We are also planning to roll out an e-voucher program for new refugees by early 2018. These initiatives will empower refugees to make their own choices and shop for nutritious food on a regular basis, while supporting local businesses.

Fighting malnutrition also means navigating the social realities of camp life. It is often easier to measure malnutrition among women and children by visiting them in their shelters. This is especially true for women without extended families, or those whose husbands may not approve of them visiting the health center alone. Walking in the muddy, dimly lit camps can also be dangerous. But while our staff go hut to hut to help people locate food-distribution and nutrition-support centers, we struggle to reach everyone.

When people started arriving in Cox’s Bazar in late August, during the Muslim Eid holiday, residents showed immense generosity. Our staff heard countless stories of locals sharing the special food they had prepared for the festivities with the hungry new arrivals. Locals here are no strangers to visitors. The magical 120 kilometers of natural beach attracts thousands of holidaymakers every year. Refugees have also been arriving for decades, fleeing previous bouts of violence in Myanmar.

Unfortunately, Eid and any surplus food are now distant memories. Many locals are fishermen or rice farmers, and their resources are stretched from sharing their land, markets, and roads with the massive influx of refugees.

To reduce the potential for tension between refugees and their hosts, international aid efforts must target both communities. In addition to meeting refugees’ most fundamental needs, WFP is expanding its school feeding, nutrition, and livelihood activities to the host communities.

Despite the dire circumstances, the people I have met in the camps are extraordinarily resilient. Children make toys from whatever they find. Women deftly weave bamboo poles into walls for their shelters. And everywhere I look, men, women, and children – despite being weighed down by their daily loads, carrying food and firewood – are taking small steps to improve their lives.

The dogged determination to make tomorrow better than yesterday is humbling. The role of the WFP and the international community supporting the Bangladeshi authorities is to ease the Rohingya’s hardship today, and push for solutions that help them realize their aspirations tomorrow.;

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