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Inside Bangladesh's refugee camps

"It's hard to work here, but almost unimaginable to live here."

We are up to our ankles in mud when Amina approaches us. Pregnant and with three young children clinging to her arms, Amina explains through tears that her husband is missing after fleeing their village in Myanmar.

Amina and her children travelled by foot for 18 days to reach this camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. After finally reaching the camp in the middle of the night, she was so exhausted that she slept through the morning's aid delivery. The family of four have nothing but the clothes they are wearing.

My Bangladeshi Red Crescent colleague acts quickly, arranging for a meal, a tarpaulin for shelter and a few other survival necessities. The next day Amina returns to thank us. Her smile is a ray of hope in this heaving new city of close to a million people within eyesight of Myanmar.

This is the best we can hope for right now: to give people what they need to survive the coming days.

Arriving at the camps every morning is an attack on the senses. When you open the vehicle door there is always the same overwhelming heat and smells of hundreds of thousands of people living in a confined area.

It's hard to work here, but almost unimaginable to live here. Narrow, slippery and muddy paths run over steep hills. All too often I find myself struggling through mud approaching my knees. In the morning I can just manage. Towards the end of the day it feels like I'm walking through quicksand with lead boots.

The camps seem to go on forever. Small huts – made of bamboo, tarpaulins or black plastic sheeting – carpet the hillsides as far as the eye can see.

Aid agencies here are working 24 hours a day, but the crisis is far beyond our resources. Every day, thousands more people arrive, seeking safety from violence. Many haven't eaten for days. All too often I see children so skinny I fear they may not survive.

They need safe water to drink, urgent healthcare to survive. Thousands of women and children are here on their own, highly vulnerable to violence and exploitation. We're doing our best to help them, but how do you set up safe spaces for women and children when there is no space?

I've lost count of how much trauma I have witnessed. It's evident on people's bodies and in their eyes.

A woman wanders past with vicious burns on her leg and head. She is looking for anyone who can give her medical treatment. We point her to one of our mobile health clinics, which provide basic medical care to as many people as possible. It's one component of a massive relief operation; my role here is to ensure clean water is available and to provide toilets for those daily rituals we take for granted in Australia.

Hardly anyone here has access to any form of toilet or safe sanitation. Every time a woman or a child needs to go to the toilet, there are risks: slipping in the mud, injury or even sexual violence.

The monsoon season has barely finished, yet the rain keeps bucketing down. And there are fears that cyclones are on the way.

Our teams are working against the clock trying to provide a safe water supply to people struggling to find a drink amid muddy ponds. We're teaching families how to purify water and repair hand-powered water pumps as fast as we can. It's pouring now, but in the coming months a dry season threatens to boil water sources bone dry.

Makeshift toilets are dotted across the camp, dug in spare inches of soil. Water pumps are becoming contaminated and spreading disease. Diarrhoea spreads faster than a bushfire under these conditions, and it's fatal to the already malnourished children.

We're going from shelter to shack educating people about the importance of hygiene. Simple messages: washing hands saves lives; using toilets saves lives; storing clean water saves lives. But this place is not simple. I am in the middle of one of the most complex emergencies our region has ever seen.

Although conditions are extremely tough and precarious inside the camps, I see evidence everywhere I look of how the people are welcoming, resilient and resourceful. They support each other despite their hardships. It fills me with hope among all the anguish.

Soon we will have a population the size of Adelaide squashed into a tiny strip of land. No one knows when they can return home to Myanmar, if ever. Their uncertain future compounds the trauma.

I have seen how a little help can go a very long way to providing the basics that everyone here deserves.

Yes, the international community needs to do more to alleviate this crisis. But we can all do something today to make life just a little easier for women, children and men living in these most awful conditions.

I see how any donation can provide more food, equip more medical clinics, build better toilets and sustainable water pumps, and protect children from further harm. It can show these resilient, loving, brave people that they are not forgotten; that they matter.

I hope that my fellow Australians can dig in and help our neighbours in their hour of need.

Mark Handby is a water and sanitation engineer. He is working in the Bangladesh camps with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent response to help people who have fled from Myanmar.

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