'They don't deserve this': Singaporeans at Cox's Bazar feel strain of helping Rohingya refugees

A long line of Rohingya refugees forms at Hakimpara Camp 14, as a United Nations food truck arrives to provide rations in July 2018. PHOTO: Shoshanna Chua
A long line of Rohingya refugees forms at Hakimpara Camp 14, as a United Nations food truck arrives to provide rations in July 2018. PHOTO: Shoshanna Chua

SINGAPORE — The mobile clinic manned by Singapore Red Cross (SRC) staff consisted of a tent and several tables and chairs. Medications and modern equipment were in short supply. With hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees crammed into the camps, the patients just kept on coming.

This was a day in the life of Dr Moganapriya Gunasegaren, 27, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where the Singaporean volunteer doctor spent a week at the world’s largest refugee camp last July.

“We could see as many as 120-150 patients per day,” recalled Dr Gunasegaren. Each clinic had one doctor assisted by several nurses and translators. “Every single day was not just physically exhausting...but more so emotionally draining (because of) the stories each patient brought.”

One particularly striking story was that of a 19-year-old mother who had to care for her newborn, after losing her husband while fleeing to the camps. “She brought her kid who had dislocated his collar bone, two days after the injury, and was worried she would have to pay for the medical expense.”

Dr Gunasegaren told Yahoo News Singapore that she was particularly affected by such young parents. “It’s like seeing a young version of myself, who could have been in this situation. They were not given the opportunities that I had.”

Many refugees, who lived under poor hygiene and sanitation conditions, would walk around without slippers and fight for rations. They were crammed into shelters - each the size of a living room and housing 10 or more people - with children having to hold onto the roofs during heavy rain.

Dr Gunasegaren, who plans to specialise in emergency medicine, admitted, “I had expected it to be bad but I was still very overwhelmed. Refugees would cut queues and fight with one another to see the doctor. They would come back again just to collect supplements and vitamins repeatedly.”

For staff nurse and fellow SRC volunteer Jessica Amalaraj, a 26-year-old Singaporean, there was almost a sense of despair. “We felt helpless. We wondered if we were really making a difference and felt we could have done more,” said Amalaraj, who remembered old people, women and children among the patients. The women typically had sexual health issues, as they used napkins in place of sanitary pads.

But Amalaraj, who spent 10 days at the camps in June 2018, was not disheartened by her experience. Echoing the sentiments of the other volunteers that Yahoo News Singapore spoke to, she said, “I want to go back. Until this situation is resolved, we just have to help them as much as we can.”

‘They don’t deserve this’

Singapore Red Cross volunteer Dr Moganapriya Gunasegaren, 27, tending to a Rohingya child at a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. PHOTO: Singapore Red Cross
Singapore Red Cross volunteer Dr Moganapriya Gunasegaren, 27, tending to a Rohingya child at a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. PHOTO: Singapore Red Cross

Dr Gunasegaren and Amalaraj are not the only Singaporeans who have volunteered at Cox’s Bazar. SRC has so far deployed two medical mission teams there with about 20 volunteers, focusing on medical care as well as psychosocial support.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) website, the Rohingya people have faced decades of “systematic discrimination, statelessness and targeted violence” in Rakhine State, Myanmar. This has forced them to flee into Bangladesh periodically over the years.

In August 2017, an ethnic cleansing campaign in Rakhine State involving mass rapes, killings and burning of thousands of homes sparked a massive influx of refugees into Bangladesh. Since then, said OCHA, an estimated 745,000 Rohingya—including more than 400,000 children—have fled into Cox’s Bazar.

As of March 2019, over 909,000 stateless Rohingya refugees reside there. “The vast majority live in 34 extremely congested camps, including the largest single site, the Kutupalong-Balukhali Expansion Site, which is host to approximately 626,500 Rohingya refugees,” said OCHA.

Homegrown social enterprise and NGO Relief Singapore (RSG) has also been engaged in providing humanitarian assistance for the Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar since May 2018. Its main activity is the installation of water filtration systems to provide safe water at primary health centres in the camps.

RSG provides healthcare and psychosocial support, and has deployed teams as far as the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon to provide relief for Syrian refugees. It has so far sent 12 non-medical missions and three medical missions, with a total of 54 volunteers, to Cox’s Bazar.

One of them is undergraduate Shoshanna Chua, 22, who helped provide psychosocial support for rape and trauma victims during a short trip in July 2018. Among the victims was a woman whose husband and 10 year-old son had been arrested and jailed in Myanmar.

“She walked barefoot from Rakhine to Bangladesh continuously for 10 days. She is currently living with her 3-year-old son in a stretch designated for widows and their children. Her days consist of waiting for the call to collect rations and waiting in line for a few hours.”

Chua added, “The Rohingya in the camp often worry for the future and think about their past in order to keep going.”

Dr Toh Wen Shien, 25, spent three and a half weeks at the outpatient department of a hospital in June. Sometimes, the refugees would come to the clinic as a whole family as they had spread illnesses to each other.

The long term effects of the violence that the Rohingya have suffered was exemplified in the plight of a paralysed eight-year-old boy, according to Dr Toh. “He fell from height when he was fleeing. Now he has pressure sores and he’s incontinent, but he doesn’t even have a catheter. What the patient needs is good nursing care but it’s not available.”

Asked if he had experienced feelings of guilt upon his return to Singapore, he said, “It’s a sentiment that is common among all the foreign volunteers. But it’s like a leaking container, I am just plugging some gaps, and tomorrow it will leak again. I am not in a position to address the root causes of the issue.”

Singapore Red Cross welcomes volunteer doctors and nurses, as well as those specialising in psychosocial support. Non-medical volunteers who are good with logistics, operations and communications are also needed. Those interested call 6664 0500 or write to enquiry@redcross.sg.

Relief Singapore is looking for volunteers for its Cox’s Bazar missions: generalist volunteers for psychosocial support (sports) programmes; and general practitioners, specialists, and nurses for medical deployment. Those interested can write to contact@relief.sg.

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