OTTAWA — Picture 2,300 football fields side-by-side, home to hundreds of thousands of people living under bamboo and plastic sheeting — no flushing toilets or running water to be found.
More than two-thirds are women and children, many of whom were victims of sexual violence or some continuing form of exploitation. Much of the area used to be forested but the trees have been cut to make way for the shelters, so the occasional rampaging wild elephant tramples through.
That’s how Michael Dunford describes what’s become of Bangladesh’s lush, southeastern countryside since late August when 600,000 traumatized Rohingya Muslims fled Myanmar in what’s been described by many — including Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland — as ethnic cleansing. They’ve swelled the ranks of fleeing Rohingya in Bangladesh to 900,000.
That’s just some of the scene that awaits Bob Rae, Canada’s newly appointed special envoy to the Rohingya refugee crisis. The former Ontario premier and ex-interim Liberal leader arrived Wednesday in the South Asian region as Myanmar’s fleeing Muslim population continues to seek refuge in Bangladesh, already one of the world’s poorest countries.
“The population is the equivalent of the size of Washington, D.C., yet there is nothing there at the moment,” said Dunford, the emergency co-ordinator for the UN World Food Program in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
“All of us are trying to remember when anything on this scale happened previously,” he said. “It’s probably not since the mid-90s with the Great Lakes and Rwanda that we have seen anything on this scale.”
Conrad Sauve, president of the Canadian Red Cross, described other formidable environmental hurdles: it’s now the rainy season, which means the area is caked in mud.
“This is a place prone to hurricanes as well,” Sauve added.
In a series of interviews, Sauve, Dunford and other international aid workers described the speed and surprise of the squalor that has engulfed Bangladesh since the Aug. 25 influx of Rohingya Muslims, triggered by insurgent attacks on police posts in Myanmar. That led to a brutal response by the country’s armed forces, aided by Buddhist mobs.
Aid agencies say 70 per cent of those fleeing are women and children. There are many reports of young girls and their mothers facing sexual assaults as they fled, as their villages burned while they watched their husbands killed. After days of hiking through the wilderness, they are arriving in Bangladesh emaciated and traumatized.
Sauve recalled meeting a 10-year-old boy at a Red Cross field hospital earlier this week who had arrived with his two-year-old brother — and no other family member. After giving him some medical attention, the Red Cross dispatched a social worker to follow up and see where the two boys were living.