COX'S BAZAR, Bangladesh – With Rohingya refugees still flooding across the border from Myanmar, those packed into camps and makeshift settlements in Bangladesh were becoming desperate Saturday for scant basic resources as hunger and illness soared.
Fights were erupting over food and water. Women and children were tapping on car windows or tugging at the clothes of passing reporters while rubbing their bellies and begging for food. Health experts warned of the potential for outbreaks of disease.
The U.N. said Saturday that an estimated 290,000 Rohingya Muslims have arrived in the border district of Cox's Bazar in just the last two weeks, joining at least 100,000 who were already there after fleeing earlier riots or persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. The number was expected to swell further, with thousands crossing the border each day.
“More and more people are coming,” UNHCR spokeswoman Vivian Tan said. With camps already “more than full,” the new arrivals were setting up spontaneous settlements along roadsides or on any available patches of land.
Within the camps “we are trying our best, but it is very difficult because every day we are seeing new arrivals” with nowhere to go.
The exodus began Aug. 25 after Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state. The military responded with what it called “clearance operations” to root out any fighters it said might be hiding in villages. The Myanmar government says nearly 400 people have been killed in fighting it blames on insurgents, though Rohingya say Myanmar troops and Buddhist mobs attacked them and destroyed their villages.
Many of the newly arrived were initially stunned and traumatized after fleeing the violence. They are now growing desperate in searching for food distribution points that appeared only in recent days, passing out packets of biscuits and 50-pound bags of rice.
One aid worker who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the media said “stocks are running out” with the refugees' needs far greater than what they had imagined. “It is impossible to keep up,” she said.
At one camp, a mobile clinic set up for the first time Saturday had already seen 600 patients by the afternoon. Patients, mostly children, were coming in with severe diarrhea, fungal skin infections, ear infections and high fever, said Nasima Yasmin, the director of the clinic run by a well-known Bangladesh health group.
Refugee camps had already been filled to capacity before the influx. Makeshift settlements were quickly appearing and expanding along roadsides, and the city of Cox's Bazar – built to accommodate only 500,000 – was bursting at its seams.