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Rohingya refugees: The 'lucky ones' survive by boat

by Sharon Tissell | Oct 18, 2017

Doctors and nurses are on the ground in Bangladesh, treating Rohingya refugees who have fled horrific scenes of violence in Myanmar. Since Aug. 25, more than 540,000 refugees have spilled across Bangladesh's border, often sailing on rickety boats across the treacherous Naf River to reach camps crowded by new arrivals.

The following dispatch comes from Sharon Tissell, a nurse who's been in Bangladesh for more than two weeks.

Yesterday a couple of us volunteers went to Bangladesh’s southern border, where Rohingya refugees arrive by sea. 

Bangladesh, refugees at Shar Porir, 2017 (4)
A small boat unloads passengers -- Rohingya refugees -- after sailing from Myanmar to Bangladesh across the Naf River.

They travel in the middle of the night, packed in fishing boats, across the mouth of the Naf River, where it empties into the Bay of Bengal. The day prior a boat had capsized and all the refugees perished. 

As we drove down coast, admiring the stunning beauty, we came across an area of activity. A group of local people had gathered. We stopped to see what was happening, only to find that they had recovered yet more bodies from the previous day’s tragedy--four women and three children.  

The bodies were already shrouded and were being carried up to the roadside to be buried. There is no way to identify them and notify their relatives. I am heartbroken as I think of what these mothers and children must have gone through in their attempt to reach safety. The Rohingya refugees are caught between unimaginable persecution and great peril in their path to safety.  

Bangladesh, dead bodies on the beach, 2017 (3)
Locals carry a shrouded body that washed ashore to a makeshift burial ground nearby. All the refugees aboard the boat died after it capsized while attempting to cross the Naf River. 

But they have no choice if they want to survive.

With heavy hearts we continued onto the most southern tip of Bangladesh. Here we boarded a small, weathered boat that took us 15 minutes away, to a small island where the beautiful mountains of Myanmar are just across the water. This is where the refugees first arrive in the early morning hours, then wait until dawn to board the small boats that take them to the mainland.  

Minutes later we had made our way into a boat with a handful of refugees. We talked with them as we made our way back to the mainland, following them as they took their first steps in Bangladesh. The pain in their faces was unmistakable, and though they are considered the “lucky ones” who made it, I cringe to know what awaits them in the crowded refugee camps.  

Once on the mainland, these families are counted and driven by truck north to Kutupalong Refugee Camp where we have been providing medical care since September.

We continued up the eastern border of Bangladesh and assessed several more crossing areas, walking through rice paddies where the Bangladesh border guards monitor the refugee influx.

We passed through more unofficial settlements, packed with refugees who have yet to be registered and do not yet receive any assistance. These are the most vulnerable, and tomorrow we begin a new assignment from the UN to open up two new clinics in these areas. I’m so grateful to be able to join the many others who are doing what we can to meet the basic need of these dear people.

Learn more about Rohingya refugees and how you can make a difference in the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world. Your support brings help to thousands of deeply vulnerable people who have nowhere else to turn for medical care.