Main Navigation


Invisible Children of Cox's Bazar


The only thing not in short supply is a will to survive.

Thursday June 8, 2017

Share this article:
57 per cent of new asylum seekers arriving in Cox's Bazar are children.
57 per cent of new asylum seekers arriving in Cox's Bazar are children.

Just imagine you are a small child, and soldiers arrive in the night to kill your family.

By some miracle, you survive and you run as fast as you can to escape. Your fear and panic mixes with the sounds of gun shots and people's cries, and you enter the unknown - the world outside your village, wrapped in the darkness of the night.  

Before you know it you're on a boat, caught in a tide of people trying to get to another country to reach safety. You are terrified, exhausted, and incredibly vulnerable, with no idea who to trust.  This scenario - or something like it - is what many of the children of Rakhine State in Western Myanmar, who have fled to Bangladesh, might have experienced. Their courage and instinct to survive, despite extreme trauma, is nothing short of incredible.

Humanitarian Crisis

Over the past three decades, more than 500,000 Muslim people have fled Rakhine state crossing the border to live in the Cox's Bazar district in south-eastern Bangladesh. Once there, some are registered as refugees and live in formal camps where they have access to services. 

However the majority are living in unplanned and overcrowded settlements and remain unregistered; limiting their access to support and services like health, policing or protection, food and water, sanitation and hygiene, shelter, clothing and basic home items.

Mohammad Ilias, 48, and his family received a tarpaulin from the Bangladesh Red Crescent and set it up on his shelter in the Kutupalong camp extension.
Mohammad Ilias, 48, and his family received a tarpaulin from the Bangladesh Red Crescent and set it up on his shelter in the Kutupalong camp extension.
What really struck me was just the utter hopelessness of what's happening in Cox's Bazaar#-#I've been around, and I have to say this is actually the worst situation I've come across.

Victoria McDonough went to Bangladesh with Australian Red Cross earlier this month to help assess the situation of the newest arrivals to Cox's Bazar, some 74,000 people who fled Rakhine State in recent months.

As a seasoned child protection expert, Victoria has spent time working in some of the world's most heartbreaking refugee crises, including support for Syrians who are escaping conflict in border settlements in Jordan.  

"What really struck me was just the utter hopelessness of what's happening in Cox's Bazaar#-#I've been around, and I have to say this is actually the worst situation I've come across," she said.

Invisible children

Victoria was alarmed to find that 57 per cent of the new arrivals are children. Many of these children had arrived unaccompanied, without parents or other family members.  

"I spoke to a young girl who saw her father shot and her mother raped and killed in front of her, and she ran with just the clothes on her back#-#many people fled with just the clothes on their back," she said.

On their own, these children have even less chance of obtaining clean clothing, adequate food, water, safety and a way to stay clean.

"I saw children covered in infected sores and abrasions from scratching#-#they were scratching at the lice and were dirty as they had limited access to water and clean clothes," she said.

Many children are underweight and malnourished. Having come from poor villages with little nutrition, to a situation far worse, children spend their days searching for food to stop their endless hunger.

Mohsena stands in front of her shelter with her disabled 4-year-old son. She fled with her to Bangladesh with her two children, five months ago, after her husband was killed.
Mohsena stands in front of her shelter with her disabled 4-year-old son. She fled with her to Bangladesh with her two children, five months ago, after her husband was killed.

Mohsena, 22, sits in front of her shelter with her children in the makeshift extension to Kutupalong camp in Ukhiya, Cox's Bazar.

According to Mohsena, she arrived to Bangladesh five months ago after her husband was killed. She lives alone with her three-year-old daughter and four-year-old son, who has a disability.

Mohsena says that when she and her children arrived, she had no money at all, so they initially stayed with another family. Eventually neighbours gave them some bamboo to build their temporary shelter, and they received food and blankets from Bangladesh Red Crescent.

"Here we have problems with the shelter, toilets , water and food. There are so many problems surrounding me but I can't find any solutions," said Moshena.

People fetching water in the makeshift extension to Kutupalong camp in Ukhiya, Cox's Bazar district, south eastern Bangladesh.

A will to survive

Clustered on the side of steep embankments, people live in small homes made of thin branches, mud, and plastic sheeting, in crowded vulnerable settlements.

The stench of human faeces hangs in the air. This is because there is only one makeshift toilet per 500 people who are there to seek asylum. People are forced to openly defecate where they live.

Mohammad Ilias, 48, and his family received a tarpaulin from the Bangladesh Red Crescent and set it up on his shelter in the Kutupalong camp extension.

He and his family arrived from Rakhine to Bangladesh a few months ago and he is worried about the rainy season. "So far we have survived with the roof we built from bamboo and thin plastic cover, but it could not take much rain. Strong wind could just fly it away. This new tarpaulin is strong and will protect us from the storms", he says.

His family of seven consists of wife and 5 children. They live together with 2 other families. Last week Tropical Cyclone Mora, made landfall near the area displacing almost 500,000 people from coastal villages causing significant damage to the settlements. The damage has compounded the extensive humanitarian need in this area, which vastly exceeded the level of assistance being provided prior to the cyclone.

According to Mohammad Ilias, in Myanmar they were all farmers or fisherman, but in Bangladesh they don't have any work or income. "We are surviving mostly with some help from relatives. We would like to return, but it is not safe. Some of our neighbours were killed, and we had to flee to save our lives", he says.

Not recognised as refugees, people fleeing Rakhine State have had to make do with very little. The only thing not in short supply in Cox's Bazar is a will to survive.

Wishing for shade

Khurshida, 55, her daughter, Minara, 18, and grandson Busuma, 8, also live in the Kutupalong camp extension. The three of them fled Rakhine together, and don't know what has happened to the rest of the family:

Khursida's son and his wife, Busuma's parents. "We are barely surviving. My nephew has been begging some money for us. I want to go back but we afraid for our lives," Minara explains.

Forced to work all day to live and to support their families, a child's existence in Cox's Bazar is incredibly hard work. "What the children said they wished for the most was shade, because it was so hot, and a release from work, because they spend all day begging or collecting leaves as fuel to burn," said Victoria.

Of the new arrivals in Cox's Bazar, 80 per cent are women and children, and they are particularly vulnerable. Domestic and sexual violence is rife, and people's unregistered status inhibits them from reporting rape and other incidents to police, or attaining medical aftercare.  

Most disturbing are the reports that some children are exchanging sex for food, and reports of child marriage have also started to emerge.

"These people have faced trauma and persecution before they arrived, and it's still continuing. They're not sure when or whether they can go home, and they feel like they're not wanted#-#they're the invisible people," said Victoria.

This is the humanitarian crisis that no-one is talking about.

Want to help?

Australian Red Cross is working with Bangladesh Red Crescent Society and the International Federation of Red Cross to provide food aid and other essential supplies, like tarpaulins to improve shelters, buckets (to help people store water safely), hygiene parcels (with soap, sanitary pads, etc), kitchen sets, clothing, mosquito nets, blankets. 

Every donation we receive for our Disaster Relief and Recovery work helps Australian Red Cross continue to be there for local and international communities struggling in the wake of a disaster. Please donate now.