More than 600,000 people have fled violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state since 25 August, joining another 200,000 who fled earlier. The arrival of so many people in such a short time has seriously strained resources and infrastructure in the Cox’s Bazar area, where authorities are trying to set up new camps to house the displaced people.

Wellington nurse Guru Dev Singh is working in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), joining Jacqui Dixon from Morrinsville, who is based in Bangladesh as IFRC’s Asia-Pacific security manager. New Zealander Holly Griffin is currently en route to Cox’s Bazar, where she will provide psychosocial support to people affected by violence, as well as to staff and volunteers responding.

Singh, a Florence Nightingale Medal recipient, who most recently worked on the Ebola response in West Africa, says she is shocked at the huge scale of health problems the new arrivals are suffering. She was one of a team sent to the border and witnessed 15,000 people sitting and standing on narrow dirt tracks in rice paddy fields, waiting to enter Bangladesh.

“There are children and babies with severe dehydration and malnutrition. I saw a baby so severely malnourished it just had skin on bone, the muscles had wasted away. Many lactating mothers and pregnant women are in a similar dire condition. Everywhere there are people with chest infections, pneumonia, diarrhoea and skin conditions like scabies.

“Most of them have a very poor prognosis. They had been sitting there for five days and I saw many people I know will probably not survive, so right now the most urgent need is more healthcare, as well as food and water.”

IFRC healthcare worker Libby Bowell checks for severely dehydrated children and pregnant women in the crowd near the Bangladesh/Myanmar border.

Singh says her team distributed oral rehydration solution (ORS) and water to as many people as possible and referred the sickest people to the MSF clinic at the border.

Communications aid worker Corinne Ambler has just returned to Wellington after spending two months working in Bangladesh. She says it is the most serious, complex and difficult emergency she has worked in.

“The sheer scale of people needing help, combined with the monsoon rain, the heat and the lack of roads into camps is making it challenging for humanitarian agencies.

“There are people as far as the eye can see, living in squalid, muddy, filthy conditions, without enough food, water, toilets and showers. There are hundreds of thousands of babies and children, and most are malnourished.

Babies are dying in front of our eyes. It is a heartbreaking and unbelievable situation, one that I can only describe as wall-to-wall human suffering.

Red Cross has opened a field hospital near the camps, staffed by both international and national doctors and nurses. It has 60 beds, an isolation unit for diarrhoeal diseases such as cholera, an operating theatre, delivery suite, and three wards. It is totally self-sufficient with its own electricity and water supply, kitchen, sleeping quarters and laboratory.

The Red Crescent and Red Cross are also running mobile medical clinics in some camps, as well as child-friendly spaces, and is distributing food, water, tarpaulins, rope, blankets, mosquito nets and hygiene kits.

Red Cross workers set up tents to house a field hospital at Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

Bangladesh Red Crescent is also working at a new transit centre near the hospital, providing first aid and triage services to thirsty, hungry and traumatised new arrivals.

“The people arriving now are in a much more precarious state of health, because they are travelling from further away and are being held up at the border,” Ambler says.

“Some are telling us they have walked for two weeks, with little to eat or drink, and they are carrying babies and old people in baskets or on their backs. Women are giving birth on the journey and carrying straight on. At least 200 people have drowned when boats carrying them to Bangladesh have capsized. It’s a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions.”

Complicating the scene is the number of unaccompanied children, with attempted trafficking incidents already being reported. Children are also being separated from their families in the chaos of the camps.

IFRC and Bangladesh Red Crescent are putting in place procedures to identify possible victims and setting up spaces for women and children to go for safe disclosure and referrals.

A large proportion of the women arriving have reported being raped and they continue to be at risk of sexual violence in the new camps. Many new arrivals have also seen family members killed, and lost family on the journey.

IFRC and Bangladesh Red Crescent are doing outreach in the community to support those who need help, and refer them to experts. Volunteers are also being trained in psychosocial support.

The Government of Bangladesh is planning to build a new 3000-acre camp to house the fresh arrivals, and has organised a cholera vaccination campaign because the risk of disease is so high.

How to help

People wishing to help those fleeing violence in Myanmar can donate to Red Cross’ Myanmar Crisis Appeal online or at any Red Cross service centre.

New Zealand Red Cross is one of very few charities to give 100% of donations to our special appeals to the emergency response. All money raised goes to the affected community. We don't take any part of donations to cover our administration.