The Tigard-based nonprofit has staff in Bangladesh, across the border from Myanmar.

COURTESY OF MEDICAL TEAMS INTERNATIONAL - Staff from Medical Teams International talk to people in Palangkhali, Bangladesh, while assessing the refugee situation.Tigard-based Medical Teams International is preparing to send more personnel to South Asia to respond to a humanitarian disaster that has been grabbing international headlines for more than a month.

The nonprofit aid organization announced Sept. 15 it was sending a team to Bangladesh to assess the situation on the country's border with Myanmar, also known as Burma, where violent clashes between the military and ethnic nationalists have forced hundreds of thousands of people from Myanmar's Rohingya minority to flee their homes. The influx of refugees across the border has strained the resources of Bangladesh, a densely populated country in which about one-third of people already live at or below the poverty line.

"Most of the people in the camps are women and children, and mothers who have just given birth, and so this is a very volatile and very vulnerable population — and so we must respond," said Joe DiCarlo, global ambassador for Medical Teams, speaking by phone Thursday, Sept. 28, from Paris.

DiCarlo said Medical Teams plans to dispatch another team to provide "direct medical care" to refugees from Myanmar.

Sending health professionals to refugee camps around the world is nothing new for Medical Teams, which has provided similar aid in regions like the Middle East, Africa and Central America as well.

"In a normal setting like this, we'll send two doctors and a nurse, or sometimes a doctor and two nurses," DiCarlo explained. Accompanying them on this trip will be a logistician, he added, and it is possible that more volunteers could be dispatched as well.

The group from Medical Teams will work with partner organizations, as well as local staff, DiCarlo said.

"Our doctors and nurses, they will provide the extra muscle and the expertise that they need," he said.

DiCarlo's hope is that by banding together with other groups, such as Food for the Hungry, Medical Teams can help give refugees "a complement of services" to address all their basic needs, including food, shelter and hygiene as well as healthcare.

COURTESY OF MEDICAL TEAMS INTERNATIONAL - A Rohingya family huddles beneath a tarp for shelter from the rain in Bangladesh. Estimated hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have crossed the border from Myanmar, fleeing violence, into Bangladesh in recent weeks.DiCarlo said the assessment team identified two refugee camps in eastern Bangladesh, along the border with Myanmar, where it believes direct aid from Medical Teams would be most valuable. All told, he said, Medical Teams expects to serve about 110,000 people in partnership with others on the ground in the country.

The Rohingya have long been subject to ethnic discrimination in Myanmar, where the government officially refers to them as illegal migrants from Bangladesh and has denied them citizenship for decades. Myanmar is a majority-Buddhist country, while the Rohingya are largely Muslim.

Human rights groups, as well as the United Nations, have accused the Myanmar military of using the latest clashes as a pretext for "ethnic cleansing," the forced removal of a population from an area, in the western Rakhine state.

DiCarlo said the assessment team reported seeing physical ailments in the refugee population that were cause for concern.

"The types of things we're seeing are acute respiratory infections (and) watery diarrhea, and the fear about that is that can easily translate into cholera," he said.

While Medical Teams staff didn't report seeing anyone suffering from wounds caused by guns or explosives, DiCarlo said, there have been other reports of refugees crossing the border while suffering from gunshot and shrapnel wounds. DiCarlo said staff will be prepared to receive those types of injuries and refer those patients to a hospital that can treat them.

Medical Teams relies on donations to continue its operations in the United States and around the world. DiCarlo encourages individuals to contribute to its mission by donating on its website or calling 800-959-4325.

COURTESY OF MEDICAL TEAMS INTERNATIONAL - Tents and lean-tos provide shelter from the weather for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

By Mark Miller
Assistant Editor, The Times
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