“Worst year yet”: Four years since Rohingya exodus, fires, floods and COVID-19 take toll on children

Four years after almost one million Rohingya refugees fled Myanmar into Bangladesh, Save the Children warns that an onslaught of fires, floods, cyclones and the COVID-19 pandemic in the past year has left refugee children struggling to cope with many self-harming.

Save the Children’s mental health workers in Cox’s Bazar refugee camps report that children are showing visible signs of distress including sleeplessness, nightmares, depression and self-harm. In a Save the Children survey of 141 of its mental health and education staff, 35% said children they worked with had harmed themselves.

They reported that fires have particularly affected children, many of whom fled Myanmar after their homes were set alight, only to see their makeshift homes go up in flames again this year. There were at least 100 fires in the camps in the first seven months of this year, compared to just 82 fires in the whole of 2020.

Last month, heavy rains triggered landslides and flooding in the camp, killing 10 refugees including at least three children, destroying the makeshift homes of more than 25,000, and affecting more than 83,000 Rohingya refugees .

For many children, the events of the past year have triggered past traumas. Some 73% of staff said children they work with refer to traumatic experiences in Myanmar when they talk about more recent events in the camps, including fires and gang violence.
Ruma Khondokar, a senior mental health specialist for Save the Children, said the crisis of the past year had left many children unable to cope. She said:

“We come across hundreds of children who have been left traumatised by these disasters. After the massive fire that happened earlier this year, children were having nightmares about being unable to escape. Many had already seen their homes set on fire in Myanmar. Imagine seeing your home go up in flames time and time again. There is only so much a child’s young mind can take.”

11-year-old Banna’s family has seen their home destroyed several times due to cyclones, fires and flooding in what they say has been their worst year yet in the camps.

In March their home was destroyed by a massive fire that blazed through the camp, affecting nearly 50,000 people. They spent over a month living under a tarpaulin sheet as their shelter was rebuilt. Then just one month into their new home, they again saw their shelter destroyed, this time by flooding as heavy rains and landslides devastated the camp.

“I have built this shelter a total of five times in the last four years,” said Banna’s mother Rubaida, 30. “This year, they rebuilt my shelter. After two or three days, the shelter was burned down in the horrible fire. Then they rebuilt it [again]. Then it was damaged again due to the landslide caused by the rain.

“People have not been able to get in or out of the camp this year due to the fire and the COVID-19 pandemic. There was heavy rain – landslides have killed people. We have heard that people have drowned here.”

Banna said: “I was scared to see the house was on fire. I was scared I would get burnt. I’m scared that if fire breaks out again, we will be burnt if we can’t escape.”

Banna, who was just 7 years old when he fled Myanmar, is being supported by Save the Children’s mental health workers who are helping him to cope with what he has experienced.

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the closure of education facilities, causing a major disruption to children’s learning and further impacting their mental health and wellbeing, Save the Children said.

Onno van Manen, Country Director of Save the Children Bangladesh, said:

“Rohingya children have endured more in four years than any child should have to deal with in a lifetime – and the conditions they are living in just get worse and worse. These are children who fled horrific violence in Myanmar, only to see what little they had left burned to ground or washed away by floods. On top of all this, many of the services they relied on – such as mental health support and protection for those who have experienced abuse or domestic violence – have been disrupted for over a year due to the pandemic.

“Almost half a million children are stuck in camps in Cox’s Bazar and the barrage of crisis they’ve faced mean they need our support now more than ever just to survive. The humanitarian community desperately needs more funding to continue our life-saving work.”

Save the Children’s health teams and refugee health workers are supporting the government of Bangladesh to vaccinate Rohingya refugees over the age of 55, combat misinformation about the vaccine and help transport older refugees with mobility issues to vaccination sites.

The organisation is also calling on the international community to find a long-term solution to the Rohingya crisis that addresses its root causes and allows for safe, dignified and voluntary returns of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar, when it is safe to do so. It is also calling on UN member states to take the strongest possible action to bring perpetrators of violence against the Rohingya to account.