Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, a sleepy coastal district at the southeastern tip of Bangladesh, became home to the world’s largest refugee camp almost overnight. Since August 2017, almost 690,000 Rohingya refugees have flooded across the border to Bangladesh to escape ongoing violence in Burma’s Rakhine State.
The refugees arrived traumatized, exhausted and hungry. They had walked miles across forest terrain, barely eating for days, and then faced the dangerous river crossing that marks the border with Bangladesh. Many had witnessed the brutal murder of loved ones, only to lose others to the turbulent waters. They brought only what they could carry. Having lost their homes and livelihoods, all were in immediate and dire need of humanitarian assistance.
The sheer number of people—480,000 in the first month—and the lack of infrastructure posed a serious challenge to humanitarian responders.
Already working in Cox’s Bazar, USAID’s Food for Peace and the UN World Food Program (WFP) were the first to mobilize. Together, we sprang into action, providing the new arrivals with packets of high-energy biscuits, which have enough nutrients to serve as a temporary meal replacement. With USAID support, WFP was able to buy rice immediately from Bangladesh’s national rice reserve, but it would take time to get the rest of the food needed.
Because the rest of WFP’s food supplies wouldn’t arrive for two months, it asked international partners to help cover the shortfall.
WFP and partners worked together to determine which food items and quantities to provide new refugees to meet basic nutritional needs and ensure the widest possible coverage. This would include two-week rations of rice, vegetable oil and lentils or yellow split peas per household.
Eighteen international and local NGOs stepped up. In addition, the Bangladesh army consolidated donations of food and other items from Bangladeshi communities to help supplement the humanitarian response.
CARE International, with support from USAID, was among the first to act, shifting 120 metric tons of U.S. food commodities to Cox’s Bazar from a program in another part of Bangladesh.
“We came to help because we had the resources,” said CARE’s ATM Zubaidur Rahman.
Another NGO, Action Against Hunger, expanded its hot meal service to assist refugees. Similar to a soup kitchen, their support helps refugees who have nowhere to cook food for themselves.
The main hot meal was a local porridge called khichuri, made of rice, lentils, spices and vegetables.
A team of 15 cooks and dozens of Rohingya volunteers prepared the khichuri. Every day up to 7,000 meals were served in the facility, and another 50,000 meals were distributed to the settlements so those unable to come to the facility could eat.
Abdul al-Amin runs the Kutupalong soup kitchen. “I’m glad that we help mothers and their children not go hungry. But it’s a lot of work.”
As was the case with many partners, it was a collaborative effort of many coming together to achieve success.
Added CARE’s ATM Zubaidur Rahman: “Separately, we couldn’t do what is needed, but together, it is possible.”
Last August, attacks by armed actors on security posts and subsequent military operations in Rakhine State, Burma, erupted into a wave of violence that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson characterized as “ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya” minority. To date, almost 690,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Cox’s Bazar, all of them in need of food and other life-saving supplies. USAID has provided $54 million in emergency humanitarian assistance for the Rohingya response, both to people inside Burma and to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Of this total, USAID’s Office of Food for Peace has provided more than $46 million in food and nutrition assistance on both sides of the border, including nearly $33 million to the UN World Food Program and UNICEF in Bangladesh and more than $13 million to WFP and UNICEF in Burma.