Imagine the entire population of a city the size of the Gold Coast crammed into a little over three square miles. This is the result of over half a million Rohingya people – more than half of them children, thousands separated from their parents – arriving in Bangladesh by foot or by river crossing from Myanmar.
More than 500,000 Rohingya are now settling in makeshift and spontaneous camps in the Cox’s Bazar area. Poignantly, from these vantage points many of them are now able to see their former home villages burning in the distance across the border.
ShelterBox response volunteer from Gloucestershire UK, Liz Odell, says, ‘Conditions are dire, with most people living in small shelters made of flimsy black plastic sheeting and bamboo poles. There is little space between the shelters, and the paths between them are a congealing soup of oozing mud. Most of the inhabitants have no possessions and only the clothes that they were wearing when they fled from their villages in Rakhine state. Many are traumatised by their experiences and the loss of loved ones.’
Liz also worries that the sites they are using, on terraces high above rice paddy fields, will be prone to collapse as the cyclone season fast approaches. Liz says, ‘Much of the area around the camps is rice paddies – they are under water so the Rohingyas are forced to build their shelters on the precipitous slopes of the surrounding hills. Once the cyclone season arrives, these terraces are likely to collapse.’
ShelterBox, an international disaster relief agency specialising in emergency shelter for families displaced by conflict and natural disasters, is making arrangements to bring in aid including portable solar lighting, which has helped reduce gender-based violence in refugee camps worldwide. Tools and tarps will help with waterproof shelter construction, and to bring basic comfort to families without any possessions ShelterBox is also aiming to bring in blankets. ShelterBox teams had arrived in Bangladesh in response to the worst flooding for decades, but now find themselves responding to a human flood as well.
Liz and her colleague Jimmy Griffith from Nelson, New Zealand have visited the two largest camps, Kutupalong and Balukhali. Here teams of aid workers are working round the clock to install water tanks, wells, latrines, medical facilities (including a 95-bed field hospital) and child friendly spaces.
But Liz says it is a race against time. ‘The influx has been so monumental and so fast that the facilities become overwhelmed as fast as they are built. One water and sanitation health worker told us that as fast as they dig latrines, they are overflowing and they don’t yet have a system for disposing of the faecal sludge. Imagine the smell. On a positive note, the weather has been dry the last few days and the knee-deep mud is beginning to dry up. The World Health Organisation are in a race against time to administer 300,000 cholera vaccinations before the inevitable outbreak of the disease.’
Mohammed, Hannah and Nurusaffa’s story
Liz and Jimmy visited a camp at Unchiprang, a spontaneous settlement which houses a relatively few 28,000 people, yet the sea of black plastic shelters still stretches as far as the eye can see. Liz says ‘We met some of the survivors who settled here a couple of weeks ago, and asked them to tell us a little about themselves.’
Shakier Mohammed and his wife Hanna are sharing a small shelter with his sister, Nurusaffa, and her two sons aged 8 and 12 years. Hanna is 5 months pregnant. Nurusaffa’s husband was killed, and their house was set on fire before she managed to flee with her two sons. It took them three hours on foot to reach the border in temperatures of 36 degrees centigrade, and then another 2½ hours by boat to cross the River Naf which forms the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh. I asked her what possessions she brought with her and she said ‘nothing’. I asked what she needed and she said ‘food, blankets, water carrier.’
‘Most of the Rohingya want to return home but at this time, that seems a remote possibility.’
‘There was a bright spot in the middle of the sea of mud and black plastic: a child friendly space. This was an airy, open-sided shelter with colourful floor mats, balloons and decorations. There was space for up to 200 children with a toy corner, an art corner, a library and areas for music and adolescents. The children have dedicated latrines, and are fed water and biscuits while they are there. The children were sat in a square, singing songs. It was gut wrenchingly poignant – the children’s ability to have fun despite all they have been through, given the right support and surroundings.’
‘ShelterBox can’t help everyone. We are a small cog in a large wheel here, but we can make a difference to the lives of at least 4,000 families.’
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‘I support ShelterBox and the crucial work they do. Shelter and togetherness are stepping-stones to recovery.’ Dame Judi Dench on World Refugee Day
On the UN’s World Refugee Day (20th June) one of the world’s most famous Oscar-winners has given her backing to an agency that has helped hundreds of thousands of displaced people. Dame Judi Dench has generously endorsed the work of ShelterBox, saying that in a world on the run from disaster, ‘ShelterBox brings hope.’
Dame Judi Dench is celebrated from Hollywood to Broadway to the West End. She has followed the work of international disaster relief agency ShelterBox for several years. Tomorrow is World Refugee Day, held every year on 20 June, when the United Nations commemorates the strength, courage and perseverance of millions of refugees.
ShelterBox is an international charity that provides emergency shelter to families who have lost their homes through conflict and natural disaster. The charity is currently responding to refugee crises in Cameroon, Niger, Chad, Syria and Iraq. A team will also shortly be heading to Uganda, which has the world’s largest refugee camp at Bidi Bidi, home to 800,000 people, many fleeing war in South Sudan. ShelterBox works hard to understand the need created by differing emergency situations, and has created a flexible range of aid that includes tools, tents and tarpaulins for families to make urgent shelter or repair buildings where there is no other possible provision. The aid can be used to create a temporary base in communities or refugee camps, but it is also light and portable for people moving from one place to the next.
Dame Judi has supported ShelterBox in the past, and donated a signed and framed theatre poster for sale in 2011. Now, with World Refugee day being promoted by the United Nations next week, she has again expressed her support.
Dame Judi says, ‘When disaster strikes and families are left with nothing, ShelterBox brings hope. Responding to each situation individually, ShelterBox gives tailor-made support – a place to live, equipment to cook with and to purify water, mosquito nets in the summer, scarves and blankets in the winter and SchoolBoxes to provide young people with the stability of the classroom.’
Right now there are 85 million people worldwide on the move, forced to flee their towns and villages by conflict, or natural disasters such as earthquakes, landslides, flooding and cyclones. Hardworking volunteers in the ShelterBox warehouse pack the boxes, which are then delivered to some of the most remote and dangerous places on earth by our dedicated ShelterBox Response Teams.’
‘I support ShelterBox and the crucial work they do all over the world helping families who have lost everything. Shelter and togetherness are stepping-stones to recovery. If you are able, please give what you can via www.shelterboxaustralia.org.au ‘‘
All donations above $2 are tax-deductible, please give generously.
While the UN decides whether to classify an air strike on a makeshift camp for displaced people in northern Syria as a war crime, disaster relief agency ShelterBox condemns the targeting of families on the run from war.
Thursday’s air strike on a makeshift camp for displaced families near the Syria/Turkey border, in which at least 28 people died – many of them women and children – has been condemned as a possible war crime by the UN.
The bombing of the Kamounia camp in the northern Idlib province came only a day after the extension of a ‘partial cessation of hostilities’ truce was confirmed. Reports say the strike on the rebel-held area was by Syrian or Russian planes, but this has not been confirmed.
Stephen O’Brien, head of humanitarian affairs at the UN, has called for an inquiry into the attack. He told the BBC, ‘Be in no doubt that all these terrible acts, wherever they happen and whoever perpetrates them, will not be forgotten and the people who perpetrate them will be held to account.’
The Kamounia camp is in the volatile region of Idlib, only 2.5 miles from the city of Sarmada and within six miles of the Turkish border. ShelterBox has been active in Syria and its neighbouring countries for over four years. Operations Co-ordinator Sam Hewett was recently in Turkey overseeing ShelterBox aid operations with in-country partners ReliefAid and Hand in Hand for Syria.
Sam says, ‘Sarmada is very close to the Turkish border and a large number of people have moved to this area because it was meant to be less at risk of this type of attack. These are large camps, and obviously not military in nature.’
‘Our partners have undertaken distributions of ShelterBox aid as part of the Sarmada camp cluster. I do not know if any of the households that we have directly supported have been affected by this air strike, and it would be very difficult to find out.’
ShelterBox Interim Chief Executive Chris Warham adds, ‘It is the most inhuman act to use women and children fleeing war as military targets. This shocking event can only fuel the desperation of thousands more families to head for the border, and the perceived safety of refugee status. Those in Kamouna, as in other Syrian camps, are classified as internally displaced persons rather than refugees, so have less protection under international law.’
At this time of year, our thoughts turn to family and home, but for many this just isn’t possible.
At ShelterBox, we don’t just help people whose homes have been damaged or lost in natural disasters, but those who have had to leave their homes due to conflict.
While many people leave their homes to escape the threat of terror and violence, such as those fleeing from Boko Haram in Nigeria or Islamic State in the Middle East, the way to safety is often just as perilous.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the number of people fleeing war and violence in 2015 is set break a record high, with almost a million people having crossed the Mediterranean Sea to escape conflict in Syria and elsewhere.
While we may not be able to help these families return to their homes and communities as we can after a flood or earthquake strikes, we can make sure that people who are migrating to safer parts of the world have some respite along the way.
This video shows our recent work in Greece, providing emergency shelter for people who had made the journey across the sea to the island of Lesbos. Many families only stayed in our tents for a few nights, but it meant that they were able to rest somewhere safe, warm and dry, before continuing their journey on to other parts of Europe.
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As the months drift into years a refugee camp becomes more than just a refugee camp. It becomes its own township, its own community, its own trading centre. In a unique and moving insight, ShelterBox talks to four people making the best of life as long term refugees
International disaster relief charity, ShelterBox is in Iraq Kurdistan visiting refugees, some of whom may have first received its aid over three years ago. Time and climate have taken their toll on tents distributed all those many months ago, so ShelterBox’s team is there to assess refugee needs in the area, and to plan with partners to refresh or replace equipment.
The European refugee crisis has its roots in the Middle East and Africa. But those roots are deep, and now of very long standing. The camps are undoubtedly safer than where the refugees have fled from. And for many children, parents and elders they may now feel like home. But they are not.
In ramshackle shops and trading posts some make a meagre living. Others are working just to stay connected to their past. Some of the camps’ residents and workers opened up to our response teams with their personal stories. For security reasons we have changed their names, and we don’t identify the actual camps and their locations.
Nizar has been in the refugee camp for six months. He’d been cutting hair in his own barber shop in Syria for 17 years, and it was a successful business. He is barely able to support his family now that he lives in the camp, and he is eating into savings he put aside in Syria. People here are so poor he can’t rely on any income now. Nizar rents his shop, which he renovated with his own money to entice customers.
‘I work because I don’t want to just sit in my tent and do nothing. I certainly don’t do it for the money, because there is none to make! This is who I am, this is what I do. I don’t really have any customers because a good haircut isn’t a priority for people anymore, they’ve lost interest in their appearance.’ Nizar is considering taking his family to Europe, but is aware of the risks involved. His eventual goal is to return to Syria when it’s more peaceful.
Sayid is also from Syria. He’s lived in the camp for two years, and he fixes washing machines and air conditioning units. He sourced a lot of equipment from outside the camp, but there is little actual payment. It’s mainly barter, as few customers have cash, so he exchanges his skills for goods. In Syria he studied to become an electrical technician, but never had enough money to start his own business.
Sayid says, ‘People inside the camp have very basic human needs at this time. Although it’s hot here, aircon units and washing machines are not a priority for the poor.’ He can barely support his family, and would like to go back to Syria ‘because it’s home’. He also has land and property, and was farming his own land before the conflict drove him away.
Mother of six, Amena lived in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, now all but razed to the ground. She fled with her husband and family two years ago. Amena opened her shoe shop in the refugee camp four months ago by borrowing $3,000, so is paying for the stock by instalments. This money is also going towards preparing her family for the winter cold. There are icy months ahead, and the camp is on flat ground open to the unforgiving desert wind. She’s not making much money, but however poor her clients, everyone will always need footwear, won’t they?
Amena was forced to become the breadwinner when her husband fell ill. She registered with UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) one year ago hoping to claim asylum in the EU. But that has already been twelve months of waiting. She says, ‘I am proud and feel somewhat satisfied that we no longer need to receive aid, that I can support my family, even if by support I mean ‘survive’.’ Survival is all. She hopes their children will get a good education and start to live in a more dignified manner when, or if, they enter the EU.
Adnan ran a thriving tailoring business in Damascus, having started young and been a professional tailor for seventeen years. But he has now lived and worked in a refugee camp for two years. Adnan tries to support his family, but is struggling because his money trickles away on basic necessities. When asked what his future plans are he says, ‘I want to go home to Damascus….‘home sweet home’. People don’t become refugees because they have a choice. They don’t go to Europe because they want to, but because they have to.’
As the ShelterBox team talked to him he was working on tailoring a pink dress, and fixing a Peshmerga (Kurdish army) uniform. He says, ‘Some of the Syrians in the camp are trying to change their reality and make things more peaceable by volunteering with the Peshmerga.’
Jack Bailey is a ShelterBox response volunteer, and was one of ShelterBox’s team on the Greek island of Lesbos, where refugee families paused for respite and shade on the long trail towards central Europe. Now Jack is part of this latest deployment to Iraq Kurdistan.
He says, ‘Adnan, the tailor, with his sharp appearance, clean clothes and uncluttered shop was obviously skilled in his trade. How inspiring to see someone taking control of his livelihood and living as normally as possible in very abnormal conditions. To see him in a small shack on a dirt road in a dirty dusty refugee camp, and know that two years ago he was running a successful business in a cosmopolitan city and, by circumstances out of his control, he finds himself there barely able to support his family.’
‘He still greets us with a smile and is polite as he offers me his chair while I make notes. And as we leave he wants to know where we will publish the small article that will take a snap shot of his struggle, dignity and pride.’
Jack describes the feelings evoked by this long term refugee camp. ‘Arriving into this camp I was surprised to see how families had adapted their living space. It seemed that they had created a private space in the form of a court yard around their tents, possibly taken from their local architectural norms of high walled courtyards for privacy, or perhaps extra shelter from the sand storms that occur over the flat and barren desert landscape.’
‘The mixture of different coloured tarps and off-cuts that were used to create these court yards was striking. I was also struck by the freedom of movement of the children, their feeling of safety as they walk around the camp hand in hand or with arms around each other, in contrast to the fact that we are operating under strict safety and security protocols.’
‘Talking to them I’m reminded that each person deserves respect and dignity. As we were asking questions I’m listening, and impressed with people’s dignity in scratching out their own livings, and taking control of their own livelihoods, however unfruitful it might be.’
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As thousands of people continue to make the journey to Europe from countries such as Syria, Iraq and Eritrea, ShelterBox is providing much-needed shelter on the Greek island of Lesbos – a halfway point for many weary travellers.
Earlier this month, a ShelterBox Response Team, made up of Sam Hewett (UK), Jennifer Butte-Dahl (US) and Jack Bailey (UK) travelled to the island to set up 100 tents in the Kara Tepe camp near the main port of Mytilene.
In contrast to many refugee camps, where people sometimes stay for years on end, the people passing through Lesbos and other Greek islands do not stay for long. This is just a temporary stop after long truck rides and dangerous sea crossings before continuing on to other European countries. Most families are only there for a few nights at a time, before they receive the necessary paperwork to resume their journeys, but the number of people arriving is so high that many local resources have been overwhelmed.
Response Team member Sam Hewett describes the unique situation in which the team was working: ‘On the first day I was nervous – normally you get everything in a camp set up before the intended occupants move in, and undertake tent construction like a production line. You ensure that essential services such as water and sanitation have been installed and you draw up a list of households who will move into each tent to prioritise the vulnerable.
‘But in this case, we were putting up our tents in and around people’s tiny camping tents. We couldn’t draw up a beneficiary list because groups of people arrived every half an hour or so – many with small children, pregnant women or disabled family members, while others departed each day.’
One of the households we helped was the Jejou family from Mosul in Iraq. They told the team that they left Mosul in August because of the threat posed by Daesh (Islamic State) and for the future of their children.
One family member said: ‘We have suffered a lot and lost everything. We are Christians, and Christians are all being killed by Daesh in Iraq. Churches are being destroyed and Daesh kidnapped some of our relatives. Two children in our extended family were killed by missiles.’
They carried on to explain that they travelled to Greece with five other families. There were 40 people in total and they all went in one boat. The motor died in the middle of the sea, but thankfully they managed to fix it and continue.
The experience of the journey has made a big impact on the family’s three children. The parents told us: ‘They’ve lost their manners. Every day we move to a new place, meet new people. They are learning bad habits. Their days have no structure and there is no controlled environment. The children want to get back to school and we want them back in school as well.’
However, in the short time that the family were on the island of Lesbos, they were able to have a brief rest in a secure environment, thanks to ShelterBox.
They said: ‘The tent is big – we can put our luggage inside to keep it safe and the whole family can live in this tent. This tent provides shelter for us and it is a safe space.’
Hundreds of others, just like the Jejou family, have been able to rest in somewhere safe and comfortable thanks to ShelterBox. An item as simple as a tent is not only providing shelter, but much-needed security, in the midst of many harrowing journeys.
As the Greek government and the UN bring in staff and ships to deal with around 25,000 refugees stranded on the island of Lesbos, ShelterBox considers its position amid tensions that Greece’s Immigration Ministry has described as ‘on the verge of an explosion’
In the last two days the Greek island of Lesbos has become the latest focal point of Europe’s refugee crisis. With an estimated 25,000 people awaiting registration papers and onward travel to the Greek mainland, there have been protests and marches in transit camps and at the island’s main harbour.
A team from ShelterBox is on Lesbos to help the UN and colleague charities improve conditions for the island’s growing transient population of Syrian and other Middle Eastern refugees.
Yesterday there were reports of refugees setting fire to partially constructed registration containers in Kara Tepe camp, the largest on the island. Kara Tepe has been the main focus of ShelterBox’s work – originally intended to accommodate hundreds, this barren area of scrubland and olive grove has become a temporary home for thousands over recent weeks. But many families find themselves waiting two weeks or more to move on.
ShelterBox Operations Coordinator Sam Hewett, and response team volunteers Jennifer Butte-Dahl and Jack Bailey, have been putting up a hundred large UN-style tents in camps to give children, the sick and the elderly better respite conditions. They are also deploying netting to provide large areas of shade from daytime temperatures, which can reach 40 degrees.
But work was suspended yesterday amid unrest, and colleagues from the charity International Rescue Committee (IRC) were forced to halt work on improving sanitation facilities. Another charity baked and distributed 1,500 loaves of bread to feed the crowds.
Jack Bailey says, ‘The security situation means we had to suspend work yesterday, and it is frustrating not to be able to help these desperate families.Small, but mostly peaceful, protests and marches have broken out, borne of frustration at the lack of reliable information about the registration process, and where to book ferry tickets.’
‘Our team attended meetings at Police headquarters yesterday to hear about the arrival of more officials to streamline the processing of applications. There will also be more ferries from the port in Mytiline to help people on the next stage of their journeys.’
Last evening Greek TV reported scenes of chaos when up to 6,000 refugees attempted to board the ‘Eleftherios Venizelos’, a cruise liner pressed into action as transport to the mainland. The surge was such that the vessel had to raise its gangplanks after it had docked.
Syrians and non-Syrians will be expedited through the registration process in the coming days. A new processing centre is being set up on an abandoned football ground, and 60 coastguard officials and Athens police have been seconded. 6,200 refugees are scheduled to have their applications processed and then to board waiting ferries from today. It is estimated that numbers on the island may become more manageable over the next 4-5 days.
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ShelterBox has witnessed increasing tensions on the island of Lesbos. Active for years across Syria and the Middle East, and now helping to improve conditions in Greek transit camps, it agrees that to prevent further deaths and misery a two-speed solution is needed.
Few have greater insight to the plight of refugee families than humanitarian aid workers. Recent events have brought the refugee crisis into sharp and dreadful focus. Shocking deaths at the hands of people-traffickers, near riots on the Hungarian border, heart-rending images, yet no unified solution from leaders across the EU.
International disaster relief organisation, ShelterBox has been at work providing shelter and equipment to displaced families across the Middle East for over four years – in Syria itself, and in its bordering countries – and now on the Greek island of Lesbos, one of the stepping stones to Europe that is now becoming overwhelmed.
As they work to help the local authorities, the UN, and colleague charities such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to improve shelter and conditions in transit camps, the ShelterBox team is now witnessing a ratcheting up of tensions on the island. The local Mayor’s office recently estimated that there were around 25,000 refugees on the island, with Kara Tepe camp, originally designed for hundreds, now hosting thousands. Numbers rise and fall by the day. But everywhere there are long queues in the unrelenting heat, and always more families arriving in flimsy boats on northern shores. And now their desperation is beginning to show.
Team members Sam Hewett, Jennifer Butte-Dahl and Jack Bailey have had to suspend work numerous times in recent days at Kara Tepe as refugee camp capacity was exceeded, tensions grew, and small protests broke out. Colleague humanitarian organisations working to improve sanitation facilities and distribute supplies were also forced to evacuate. As the situation has allowed, the ShelterBox team has moved in to Kara Tepe to continue distributing 95 large UN-style tents, as well 800 square metres of shade nets to protect families from the elements while they wait on Lesbos.
ShelterBox has also put up five UN-style tents in Pikpa, a small camp run by local Greek volunteers, which is housing families with young children, the sick, and the disabled. The final tent erected yesterday soon became home to a young Syrian couple with a four week-old baby who had just been discharged from the hospital. Sam says, ‘We are working closely with the United Nations to assess shelter needs across the island and provide assistance where possible, and as the security situation allows.’
Families are on Lesbos, having made the short sea journey from the Turkish coast, awaiting papers that will allow them to continue by ferry to the Greek mainland. But the EU system that says refugees must be processed in the country of their arrival is now being severely tested. Local authorities on Lesbos are unable to effectively manage the rising numbers of arrivals, and the bureaucratic backlog can mean waiting times of over two weeks for some people. So the travelers linger in inadequate transit camps awaiting registration papers, and then try to purchase seats on inconsistent and overbooked ferries to the mainland.
Most are patient, but patience is running out. There have been a number of clashes between refugees and riot police both in Kara Tepe and at the port in the last few days as registration has been suspended. According to Jen, ‘There is no consistent registration system in place here on Lesbos. The situation changes hourly and key decisions required to safely and effectively process refugees are caught up in political indecision. In the meantime, families wait days in the sun without information or direction on what to do next, and numbers continue to grow. The current situation is unsustainable.’
Chief Executive of ShelterBox, Alison Wallace, says, ‘This crisis undoubtedly needs a two-speed solution. Like many other aid organisations and local governments ShelterBox is urgently dealing with the here and now – providing humanitarian relief for those families who have arrived in Europe escaping fear and persecution.’
‘But our teams have also been active for years at the source of this problem. Conditions in Syria itself, and in countries such as Iraq and Turkey on the flight from ISIS, need vast improvement with a concentrated long-term international effort.’
‘Only when it becomes bearable to stay will these frightened people stop setting out for the hope that may lie over the horizon.’
‘Two speeds – tackling both the course and the source. The course of the refugee trail is Europe’s immediate dilemma – where to accommodate these people who cannot go home. But tackling the source of the problem will require a long term commitment to global aid, diplomacy, and compassion.’
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