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Hunger gnaws at Rohingya children
December 07, 2017
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BALUKHALI: 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 centre.

“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 Muslim refugees who have fled Myanmar for camps in Bangladesh since late August, Begum is struggling to feed herself and her baby.

The exodus began when co-ordinated Rohingya insurgent attacks sparked a ferocious military response, with the fleeing people accusing security forces of arson, killings and rape.

The top UN human rights official said on Tuesday that Myanmar’s security forces may be guilty of genocide against the Rohingya.

Myanmar has rejected accusations of ethnic cleansing and has labeled Rohingya militants as terrorists.

While now safe from the threat of violence, refugees in Bangladesh now 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 centre.

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 per cent 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 diarrhoea or pneumonia, and have to be referred to a hospital,” said Charles Erik Haider, a doctor with the International Organisation for Migration, in a clinic adjacent to the screening centre.

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.


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