THERE are about 60 babies born a day in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Some 800,000 Rohingya crossed into Bangladesh to flee violence in Myanmar since August last year. They joined about 200,000 Rohingya refugees who had fled previous outbreaks of violence in their home country.
In a statement in May, Unicef (United Nations Children’s Fund) said since the Rohingya refugee crisis began last year more than 16,000 babies had been born in the camps. Out of that number, only about 3,000 were delivered in health facilities.
With that in mind, Mercy Malaysia built a Maternal and Child Health Care for Rohingya refugees in Balukhali camp about 40km from Cox’s Bazar. The NGO officially launched the healthcare centre last month during Ramadan.
“We built it because the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) report said that there was a critical need for mother and child healthcare centre here,” said Mercy Malaysia executive director Amran Mahzan who was at Balukhali Camp to witness the official opening of the centre.
Amran said 51% of the refugee population were women and girls, whereas 9.2% of women are lactating mothers and 4.9% of women are pregnant.
“There is the risk of complications during pregnancy and birth. Our maternal and child health centre will help these groups who are most at risk,” he said, adding that 48% of the refugees are children below the age of seven.
The issues in the Rohingya refugee camps, according to Amran, are sometimes complicated.
“Many families marry off their children as soon they reach puberty, which is between the age of 10 and 12. Our team even met a 14-year-old girl who is pregnant with her third child,” he said.
At the Balukhali camp, 22-year-old Rohingya refugee Mobina Khatun, who is four months pregnant, visited the Mercy Malaysia healthcare centre to check on her condition. The doctor told Mobina that her pregnancy was okay.
“I’m happy there is such a facility as there is no place for me to go,” said the woman who wore a hijab.
“In Myanmar, a midwife will visit me but here there is none.”
The story of why she fled her home country is similar to many of the Rohingya refugees I met in Balukhali and Kutupalong camp.
Eleven months ago, the Myanmar military burnt her house, killing her two brothers – 22 and 25 years old – and she and her husband and month-old daughter were forced to seek sanctuary in neighbouring Bangladesh.
“Where would you want your baby to be born?” I asked Mobina.
“In Myanmar as that is my country. I wish to return if I am allowed to go back.”
It is unlikely that her baby will be born in Myanmar as the refugees feel that there is not enough guarantees by the Myanmar government to ensure their safety back home.
One of the big challenges that every NGO faces in the Rohingya refugee camps, according to Thomas McKearney, a 28-year-old English doctor who is a Mercy Malaysia volunteer, is the pregnant women.
Traditionally in Myanmar, they deliver at home with the help of a midwife. They only go to the hospital if there are complications during their pregnancy.
But in the refugee camp, the mothers are forced to deliver in their shelter home built from bamboo sticks and tarpaulin sheets.
“Here the health care is chaotic. The pregnant mothers do not know where to seek medical aid. They do not know who to turn to. They do not know where to find a midwife,” said the volunteer who has been working in the camps for three months.
“Compared to their home in Myanmar, the sanitation here is poor and it can impact their pregnancy.”
Why are these women getting pregnant? I had that thought when I saw the squalid life of the refugees.
I had the same question when I visited the Afghanistan refugee camps at Shamshato in Peshawar, Pakistan in 2001.
The thousands of refugees, who fled their home country after the US-led bombing of Afghanistan, lived in muddy conditions. And I wondered how they could be thinking of sex in that environment.
So, I WhatsApped Dr McKearney: “Was wondering why in their dire condition living in refugee camps that these women get pregnant or the men get them pregnant?”
“Lack of family planning awareness,” he said. “It is also a global fact that wherever there is poverty there is a high birth rate.”
Dr McKearney said shortly after the Rohingya arrive in the refugee camp, the families try to find a husband for their daughter.
“For many reasons – safety/protection for the daughter and they get their own shelter if married and hence is not so crowded,” he said.
In the Unicef statement in May, its representative in Bangladesh said: “Around 60 babies a day are taking their first breath in appalling conditions, away from home, to mothers who have survived displacement, violence, trauma and, at times, rape. This is far from the best start in life.”
Now, it is monsoon season in Bangladesh. The babies will be born in a more challenging environment.
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