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Canadian field staff on the front lines of the Rohingya crisis

Matthew Brook (centre) is seen among Rohingya refugees at the Kutapalong refugee settlement, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh in November, 2017.

Matthew Brook has been in the field with UNHCR since 2000. Yet the veteran staff faced a fresh set of challenges on the front lines of the Rohingya emergency in Bangladesh.

Matthew Brook was deployed to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, in October 2017 where he served as a Senior Field/Technical Coordinator. He was part of an emergency response team in the field to support the Government of Bangladesh in providing protection and assistance to the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees displaced from Myanmar.

In his first week in Bangladesh, Matthew travelled to Anjuman Para on the border with Myanmar. Thousands of refugees were strung out along the rice paddy and river embankments waiting patiently to be allowed to move from the border area into the refugee settlements, after having walked for days—or even weeks—fleeing Myanmar.

Refugees, including the elderly, individuals with disabilities, day-old babies and expectant mothers sat in the open sun without sanitation, food or water. Working with other humanitarian organizations, UNHCR managed to provide a basic level of assistance, including improvising by hiring a local boat to deliver food along the embankments, and negotiating with border authorities to allow the critically ill to be evacuated for medical assistance.

A few days later, the refugees were finally permitted to start making their way to the refugee settlements—a seemingly endless line of human beings walking with all of their collective belongings on their backs. Matthew and his colleagues in the field quickly realized that their capacity was overwhelmed in terms of receiving refugees at the distribution point in Kutupalong, the main refugee settlement.

With a Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) colleague, he decided to set up an extra distribution point on the spur of the moment. Within an hour, they had a system in place to direct people into two lines: to receive food in one line, and blankets, tarps, sleeping mats and other basic necessities in the other.

“Over the space of a few short hours, we managed to provide basic assistance for more than 3,000 new arrivals before darkness fell amid torrential rains.”

Later on in his deployment, UNHCR, working together with the Bangladeshi government and other partners, opened up new zones of the refugee settlements with better access to services like health, education, water and sanitation. Tens of thousands of kits were delivered to refugees to build improved shelters. Teams were established to identify and address protection risks, and even initiated a programme to reduce the possibility of wild elephants trampling refugees in their shelters.

Matthew shares that the contributions provided by UNHCR supporters were fundamental to refugees receiving basic protection and assistance in the early days of the Rohingya crisis. This, combined with the phenomenal industriousness and resilience demonstrated by the refugees, allowed for a significant improvement in their condition.

Going forward, continued support is critical, particularly given the torrential monsoon rains currently afflicting the refugee settlements.

Of the 900,000 Rohingya refugees currently in Bangladesh, more than 200,000 of them are in the path of danger as landslides and flooding threaten the makeshift structures they call home. Help us shelter and protect more Rohingya refugees by making a donation at unhcr.ca/bangladesh

By Matthew Brook, as told to Lauren La Rose

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