When Cyclone Mora struck southwest Bangladesh at the end of May, the storm had a particularly devastating impact on the informal settlements in Cox’s Bazar, which are home to displaced people from Myanmar who fled violence in their homes in parts of northern Rakhine. The homes of more than 150,000 migrants were badly damaged or destroyed. Made of mud-walls with plastic sheeting roofs wrapped over bamboo poles, these shelters could not withstand the force of the cyclone. Possessions and food stocks were also lost to the storm, driving this marginalised population deeper into crisis.
The Bangladesh Red Crescent Society is scaling up its efforts to support humanitarian needs in the camps. But before the storm, Red Crescent volunteers such as Tamjid Hossen Naim have been providing psychosocial support to new arrivals from Rakhine. Every day, the 25 year-old navigates the muddy paths and hills of Kutupalong settlement. According to Naim, humanitarian assistance is more than just food, water and medicine, it is also about psychosocial support and protection. He and the other Red Crescent volunteers have been trained in psychosocial support during which they are taught to ‘listen, listen, and listen.’
For several decades people from Rakhine State have been crossing over the border into Bangladesh in waves of mass displacement, with most ending up in Cox’s Bazar. Since October 2016 a surge in violence in parts of northern Rakhine led to over 75,000 new arrivals. The majority end up in the makeshift settlements where they live in extremely difficult circumstances. Nearly sixty per cent of these newly displaced persons are girls and boys below the age of 18 years.
The Bangladesh Red Crescent Society has responded to the needs of the newly displaced persons by providing humanitarian assistance that includes shelter, health, and the provision of clean water and sanitation. As an integral part of their engagement with community members, Red Crescent volunteers also organise discussions with local children to listen to and understand their needs.
During these dialogues, children share their perspectives about life in the makeshift settlements and what needs to be improved. A common theme that arises is the severe distress children have and continue to experience. Having to flee their homes, losing their daily routines, living in unhygienic environments, and having their education disrupted are all interlinked factors that have heightened their stress levels.
“We cannot go to school because in the morning we have to do our chores to help our families,” says a young girl in the Kutupalong settlement. Another child adds, “During the day we collect leaves, play with coconut shells, and look after our sisters and brothers.”
The Red Crescent volunteers are reaching out to children through psychosocial activities that help them to express their feelings and enable them to play together in safe environments.
“It is good you come. People ask adults what they need and what is happening but no one asks us children,” says one young girl.
A pressing problem is the number of unaccompanied and separated children. A sample survey by the Bangladesh Red Crescent shows that a significant number of children arriving in Bangladesh are alone or separated from their parents. This is of particular concern because of their high vulnerability to physical, sexual and psychological violence, discrimination, and social exclusion.
“Both of my parents died in the fighting. I saw it happen to them. I ran and a man rescued me. He was helping many people cross the river to escape the danger. He took me with the other people and left me here in this place,” says an eight-year-old boy.
Through its Restoring Family Links service, the Red Crescent is leading efforts in the settlements to reunite unaccompanied and separated children with their parents and families. It also provides services to help girls and boys to trace the location of their families in Myanmar and to send them messages.
“I am now able to talk to my mother and sister sometimes,” says one boy who arrived one month ago in the camp.
When asked why he volunteers with the Red Crescent, Naim has a simple explanation. “There are many things to do in life but I am motivated by how proud my parents are of me. They see that I am trying to help others who have arrived in our country. Volunteering here is an opportunity to put into practice my own personal beliefs.”