The Rohingya crisis: can a Papal visit change anything? | ActionAid UK

Mike Noyes

Head of Humanitarian Response

There are more than 600,000 refugees in Cox’s Bazar. As the eyes of the world follow every step of his visit, pressure is on for the Pope to foster a peaceful, long-term solution to the Rohingya Refugee Crisis.

Hundreds of Rohingya men women and children refugees queue under umbrellas at Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh for ActionAid food distribution, having fled violence in Myanmar
Some of the thousands of Rohingya refugees at Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh queuing under umbrellas for food from ActionAid, having fled violence in Myanmar

Wednesday 29 November marks the conclusion of Pope Francis’ three-day trip to Myanmar, which included a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi at the Presidential Palace.

On Thursday 30 November he will arrive in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, for a three-day stint. We must use this moment to mount pressure on the government of Myanmar to respect the rights of all its civilians in Rakhine state, to prevent further escalation of conflict in the area, and to put into practice the recommendations of the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State.

Equally, Myanmar's government must recognise that the only long-term solution to this crisis lies in an end to discrimination against people in Myanmar on the basis of their ethnic or religious identity.

ActionAid distibrute food packages. Mainnerghona Camp Cox's Bazar

ActionAid has been in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh since early September, supporting almost 50,000 people with life-saving humanitarian aid and building wells for safe drinking water. As an agency that champions the rights of women and girls, our work there is focused on their needs.

Gender-based violence is a huge problem

Saturday 25 November was International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, launching 16 days of Activism, so the Pope’s visit happened hot on its heels – helping to provide a much-needed spotlight on the issue of gender-based violence so widely reported in this conflict.

At a parliamentary debate on the Rohingya earlier this month, it was estimated there are 75,000 victims of gender-based violence in Cox’s Bazar.

Action Aid led commitee meeting

ActionAid has long experience in supporting women and girls who have experienced such violence. We have set up safe spaces for women in Cox’s Bazar, inside which our trained counsellors provide psychosocial support to address trauma, assess medical needs and refer onto medics.

Safe spaces for Rohingya women and girls who have survived abuse

These safe spaces are also open for women to come and simply feel safe, to breastfeed in privacy and safety, and to seek other kinds of help.

We have built women-only toilets and bathing areas, covered on all sides and lit with solar-powered lights, restoring some of the dignity that women and girls lose in these situations.

Sakina, 35, with her six week old daughter Noor Fatema. She was forced to flee Myanmar, running through her contractions for one mile.

Many women in the camps are pregnant, gave birth on the way, or have their children with them in the camps – where malnutrition and water-borne disease always put young lives at risk. This underscores how critical the situation is - and how desperately help is needed. Mothers in Cox’s Bazar are typically without their partners, who died or disappeared in Myanmar.

Women their children have survived violence and abuse

One woman, Sakina, told ActionAid that she was in labour when violence broke out in her village in Myanmar, and she was forced to flee, running through her contractions for one mile. She managed to get herself onto one of the crowded fishing boats leaving for Cox’s Bazar, where she gave birth. Sakina’s baby survived, though dangerously malnourished.

Another women, Sitara, walked on foot for three days to bring her five children from Rakhine state to Cox’s Bazar. As she retold her story to our staff on the ground, she gestured with her hands to show the slicing of children’s throats. She’d fled because she was told this was happening by others who said they’d witnessed it. 

Sitara with her children. They walked on foot for three days to escape violence in Myanmar.

How ActionAid is helping Rohingya people

ActionAid’s Bangladesh team is planning to co-manage a camp in 2018 as well as a longer-term response in Cox’s Bazar. We praise the government of Bangladesh for keeping its the border with Myanmar open and providing first sanctuary to the Rohingya.

However, we can only hope that Pope Francis’ visit to both countries, and his meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, shows a pathway to foment a longer-term, peaceful resolution. There must be an end to the ethnic and religious discrimination against people in Myanmar that has caused years of war and created almost one million refugees – before even counting the babies born of fleeing women.

Please donate to our Refugee Rohingya Crisis Appeal here