Crisis and Care
Despite the challenge of trudging through torrential rains, members of the Tigard-based Medical Teams International continue to aid the surge of Rohingya refugees who have poured into Bangladesh to escape persecution in their native Myanmar.
Betsy Baldwin, director of humanitarian response for Medical Teams International, said the organization has committed fully to helping the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group who has seen increased violence under the Myanmar military. The non-governmental organization has been delivering life-saving medical care for those in crisis situations, she said.
Baldwin recently returned to the United States after spending two weeks in Bangladesh at the massive refugee camp.
"We have nine volunteer doctors and nurses, mostly from the United States and a few from the U.K.," said Baldwin, who works out of Washington, D.C. "We've actually had 81 volunteers total since the beginning of our response, but then after that we had 89 local staff who work for us, a lot of (them) who purchase things for our clinic. We also have lots of translators."
In addition, she said there are 180 community health aides who work in camps and visit houses to make sure refugees have hygiene items and are aware of the health services available to them.
Baldwin only recently joined Medical Teams International but has worked in humanitarian aid for the last 11 years. She said Bangladesh is an extremely hard country for humanitarian organizations to get permission to work in, so there aren't that many in that country.
"So we have a little more significant role than you would in a place where any organization could come and do whatever they like," Baldwin said.
Other humanitarian groups working at the massive camp include Doctors without Borders (who were there before the crisis began) as well as the Swiss-based Medair, Food for the Hungry and the International Refugee Committee.
Baldwin said an estimated 1 million Rohingya refugees have fled their homes in Myanmar; 700,000 of them in the last year. Medical Teams International sent teams to Bangladesh in September when the crisis reached a critical point.
"It would be classified as an informal settlement or refugee camp (and) now is the world's largest refugee camp in (the) very southern tip of Bangladesh that borders Myanmar," Baldwin said.
The Rohingya are part of a Muslim minority who have been under increased violence at the hands of the Myanmar military.
As a humanitarian organization that provides help for those in need, Medical Teams International tries not to comment on specific actions by the Myanmar government.
But the reality of the situation is dire based on news reports.
In March, CNN reported that a senior United Nations official who was investigating what is happening to the Rohingya in Myanmar was "increasingly convinced it may amount to genocide."
And as recently as Friday (July 17), ABC News was reporting that the Trump administration has sanctioned four Myanmar military officials along with two military units believed to be part of an ethnic cleansing of Rohingya by imposing economic sanctions.
That official's conclusion came in part from refugees who have fled the Buddhist-majority country with stories of the military conducting a campaign of mass murder.
Baldwin said the refugee camp isn't just a single camp; rather, there are multiple camps all in the same district in Cox's Bazar, which boasts the longest natural sea beach in the world.
Baldwin said humanitarian agencies have had to carve out pedestrian bridges, pathways and roads between the houses, creating an ad hoc settlement all crammed into a piece of land not quite 10-square-mile in size.
"We have five clinics in the camps. And even to put our clinics in the camps, we actually had to work with some neighboring housing to move them and relocate them to safe areas," she said. "A lot of the homes right now are built out of bamboo and plastic sheathing (because) the refugees are not permitted to build permanent homes."
She described Medical Teams International's work in Bangladesh as welcomed by the government and has also been accepted by the refugees in the camp.
Baldwin said, not only do the Rohingya have to undertake a very dangerous journey fleeing their country, but they also have to navigate a huge physical obstacle, crossing the Naf River, which is the boundary between Myanmar and Bangladesh.
"We've heard stories of people ... swimming and there are smugglers with boats," Baldwin said of the Rohingyas efforts to cross the body of water.
From a medical standpoint, Baldwin said doctors have seen everything from respiratory illnesses to more serious problems such as diphtheria. Malnutrition is also an issue from those coming directly from Myanmar.
"Especially children under 5 are malnourished," Baldwin said, adding that this season's monsoons are increasing fungal infections as well.
The monsoons of July — usually the heaviest times for the annual deluges — weren't as bad as they could have been. But they created problems and challenges for an area consisting of hilly topography.
"There have been … a few people injured," Baldwin said. "I think a few people have died from small landslides."
The monsoons make it tough to aid the refugees in the camp, she said, noting that one day in June saw a foot-and-a-half of rain.
"We frequently go out to the camps in (18-inch high) rubber boots just because you're stepping in small creeks, you're stepping into muddy, sandy, clay soil," she said.
Baldwin said while Medical Teams International doesn't expect as many refugees to fill the camps in the future, they also don't expect the refugees to leave anytime soon. The United Nations is working on a plan to return the Rohingyas safely back to their native country, she said.
"We expect at this time next year to be providing very similar service to this population," she said. "We'll continue to monitor the situation and also monitor the monsoon season. "We'll continue to make sure we have contingency plans in place in case we lose our clinics."
That includes the ability to set up mobile clinics.
Those wishing to help the Tigard-based Medical Teams International can volunteer, pray and/or donate money.