Hunger plagues Rohingya kids in Bangladesh’s refugee camps


BALUKHALI, Bangladesh — In the sweltering heat of Bangladesh’s dusty Balukhali refugee camp, seven-month-old Mahmoud Rohan is burning up.

“I am worried about him,” said his mother, 25-year-old Roshida Begum, in the waiting room of a malnutrition screening center.

“He got a fever last night but I couldn’t reach help. I was told to come here.”

Along with an estimated 625,000 Rohingya refugees who have fled Myanmar for camps in Bangladesh since late August, Begum is struggling to feed herself and her baby.

Refugees in Bangladesh face malnutrition on an “alarming” scale, say aid agencies.

Health workers suspect tiny Mahmoud, who wears an oversized red sports shirt, has severe acute malnutrition — the most serious form of malnourishment. All he has had to eat in the camp, where his family has been for two months, is a few spoonfuls a day of rice mixed with sugar, his mother says.

At home in Maungdaw township in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, Begum — who is unable to breastfeed properly — fed Mahmoud with rice water.

Now, as a health worker examines him, the circumference of his spindly upper arm indicates the severity of his condition. Around him, other mothers, some wearing black niqabs, sit on benches holding their babies in the small bamboo-walled center.

Dressed in rags, eight-year-old Sadril Amin has brought his malnourished sister, 16-month-old Boila Amin, for a check up. Their mother is sick and their father is at the market, the little boy said through a translator.

Nearly a quarter of all the Rohingya refugee children in the Bangladeshi camps aged between six months and five years are malnourished, an analysis conducted by UNICEF found.

Worse, it found around 7.5 per cent of all children — around 17,000 youngsters — are affected by severe acute malnutrition.

Children make up around 40 percent of the refugee influx, and are particularly vulnerable to starvation’s effects.

Compared to healthy youngsters, severely malnourished under-fives are nine times more likely to die from common infections.

Besides the visible effects on the body, such as muscle wasting, the condition leads to low immunity, meaning children become much more susceptible to other illnesses. The result is a toxic mix of health problems that can be fatal.

“If a child is malnourished, they can easily suffer from diarrhea or pneumonia, and have to be referred to a hospital,” said Charles Erik Haider, a doctor with the International Organization for Migration, in a clinic adjacent to the screening center.

On the perilous journey to Bangladesh, most refugees survived on one meal a day or less, according to UNICEF. Stories abound of desperate people eating vegetation and drinking from puddles and streams.

“I had to drink water from a pool made by the monsoon rain,” said Mohammad Hassim, 25, from his newly built hut on the other side of Balukhali camp.

He said he didn’t eat for the final eight days of his arduous trek to Bangladesh, which included nearly three weeks hiding in the hills, and fell sick.

In the camps, food aid is being distributed by the Bangladeshi Army and World Food Program — families are given rice, lentils and oil every fortnight — but many children are still struggling to eat properly.

Despite the dangers presented by malnutrition, many Rohingya mothers don’t realize lack of nutritious food is the underlying health issue causing other illnesses in their children, said Haider, at the camp’s clinic.

Often, parents will not realize the child is malnourished until they see a doctor for another reason. Many only know there is a problem when their babies’ traditional bangles begin to slip from their skinny wrists.

“There is not much understanding of nutrition,” said Haider. “We need to increase awareness around feeding. Education is the key.” — Thomson Reuters Foundation