World-First Innovation To Stem Disease In Refugee Camp As Rohingya Crisis Continues

The scale of Rohingya refugee crisis is hard to comprehend, with a massive city of shanties and tents erected in Bangladesh needed to deal with the sheer scale of this catastrophe.

Around 700,000 Rohingya people -- a historically-targeted ethnic minority in Myanmar -- have fled the country, into neighbouring Bangladesh and further afield, since a new campaign from military and government began in 2016.

Countless others have been killed or injured in the crackdown which saw villages burned, people brutally murdered and tortured, and women raped. The United Nations said the Myanmar military had "genocidal intent" in carrying out the crackdown, and called for those responsible to be charged.

UN special envoy Angelina Jolie visited the camps just this week, and a worldwide 2019 fundraising appeal will seek to raise nearly US$1 billion to fund a 2019 Joint Response Plan to continue meeting basic needs.

Jolie at the Kutupalong camp (Photo by Sony Ramany/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

"You have every right not to be stateless, and the way you have been treated shames us all," Jolie said.

With the refugees safe from immediate persecution, the latest issues are perhaps more insidious -- exploitation and disease.

Authorities say trafficking of women and children into neighbouring countries is on the rise, with a local humanitarian group saying more than 200 Rohingya had been rescued from trafficking since December.

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Rohingya refugees are currently being housed in the world's largest refugee camp, Kutupalong in the area of Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh, which is estimated to house around 550,000 people.

Illness, infection and disease are rampant in the overflowing camp, an issue Oxfam -- among a coalition of humanitarian groups -- have looked to address with a world-first technology.

The refugee camp at Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. (Photo by Kaan Bozdogan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Oxfam have opened the largest sewage treatment plant to ever be built in a refugee camp, an "industrial-scale" facility hoped to stop the spread of diarrhoea, scabies and respiratory problems in the mind-bogglingly huge camp.

The installation, the first of its kind, is even producing biogas which refugees can use to cook food.

Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. (Photo by Kaan Bozdogan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

"Safe sanitation is vital to prevent outbreaks of disease but disposing safely of human waste in the world’s biggest refugee camp is a major challenge," said Salahuddin Ahmmed, an Oxfam water and sanitation engineer.

"This ecological plant will help to keep refugees healthy by treating 40 cubic meters of waste a day – a huge amount."

Workers build the plant (Oxfam)

Built over seven months by both Oxfam engineers and Rohingya refugees, and funded by the United Nations, the treatment facility can deal with the waste of 150,000 people.

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Oxfam said the fact that 85 percent of the world's refugees are in developing countries means waste management is a vital yet difficult problem to deal with.

Often, waste is simply just dumped in fields or streams, polluting local ecosystems -- so the new treatment plant is hoped to act as a model for how future refugee emergencies can be handled, with less impact on the environment.


"The initial investment is well worth it because the plant is cheap and easy to run and could last for 20 years – benefiting local communities when this emergency is over," Ahmmed said.

"We expect to replicate this model in future crises."

Oxfam said almost one million refugees in Bangladesh are still without food, water and other essentials.

Rohingya refugee children in the Bangladesh camp (Photo by K M Asad/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“I didn’t know what happened to all the waste from the latrines. I’m happy that Oxfam has built this plant as it will help prevent the spread of diseases," said 18-year-old Rohingya refugee Aki.

"Last year lots of people were sick with serious diarrhoea. But we are seeing improvements. We can tell our community that this plant is doing something that will help for the future, and maybe also produce cooking gas. It’s great.”

Aki, at the plant (Oxfam)