COX'S BAZAR, Bangladesh : The influx of over 600,000 Rohingya at the Balukhali and Kutupalong camps, situated about 40km from Cox's Bazar town, has turned the coastal area into somewhat the largest slum in the world.
Living condition inside the camps is dire, where makeshift 'houses' built on slopes make a huge maze extending up to several kilometres, and the numbers continue to expand by the day as scores of Rohingya are still fleeing Myanmar.
The New Straits Times visited the camps on Saturday during a brief visit with 13 Malaysian MPs, who saw first-hand the urgent need for concerted efforts to assist the refugees for both short- and long-term before the Rohingya crisis can be solved amicably.
Most of the tents that the new refugees now call home are made of sticks using large black plastic sheets or gunny sacks as walls. For those who have settled earlier, these 'walls' were replaced with clay.
The haphazard state of the camps sparks many concerns from health issues due to the lack of clean water supply to the lack of opportunity for a sustainable livelihood.
The future of the thousands of children there also looks bleak, as the camps are lacking in facilities for their education.
At the Balukhali camp, the sight of small children running around naked is a norm.
The sight of scrawny looking primary school-aged kids carrying wood and bamboos to build more tents, and manning makeshift stalls selling vegetables and other daily items is also commonplace.
The fate of the Rohingya women in the camps are also a concern, especially widows who are left with many children, and rape victims who are carrying the offspring of their attackers.
However, as humanitarian group Malaysian Consultative Council for Islamic Organisations (Mapim) vice-president Ahmad Tarmizi Sulaiman puts it, the exact number of the rape victims is not known as most of them decline to admit and speak about it "for fear of humiliation and stigma".
The NST during the visit saw that many manual water pumps have been made available by humanitarian organisations, but was pointed out by a relief volunteer that the water quality and safety at the camps remains a concern as analysis revealed the presence of bacteria.
Availability of food has also become a growing concern with the continuously increasing number of displaced persons taking refuge in the camps. This was made apparent when this reporter was approached by a group of refugees during the visit, who through a translator requested for their plea for food to be highlighted.
Father of six, Abu Talhah, 38, who live in Section 10 of Balukhali camp with some 120 other families, claimed that the last time they were provided with food items was last month.
"We went to the World Food Programme office to ask for food, but were told that there was none there. But when we insisted to be given food, we were told to go away and beaten up with sticks," he said.
Abu Talhah arrived early September after walking five days from their village in Myanmar.
The same experience was echoed by two women from the camp – Sakinah, 45, and Hasnam, 55. Both women showed us their injuries due to the beatings and said they had to fast as there was no food. They are barely surviving, borrowing rice and local food items from relatives who live in other sections that were still receive humanitarian supply.
"Please convey our plea to the authorities," said Sakinah, who was forced to flee to Bangladesh with her four children last month when her husband was killed by Myanmar soldiers and their village in Juffarang, Myanmar, burnt.
Mapim media coordinator Rozaidi Taib, who is a part of the organisation's team deployed here, pointed out that lack of food is usually felt more by those with big families.
"Food packs are usually provided per family, which makes those with many members having to settle with smaller portions of whatever they get. The continuous arrival of new refugees also makes food supply spread thin, and this is one of the worries of the host government and the United Nations," he said.
During the visit, the 13 Malaysian MPs led by Dewan Rakyat deputy speaker Datuk Seri Dr Ronald Kiandee delivered assistance to 300 families in the form of basic food items and blankets.
Ronald said more assistance of 25 tonnes food items from Malaysia is expected to arrive soon with cooperation from Malindo Air and AirAsia airlines, and would be distributed by Malaysian NGOs here including Mapim and Mercy Malaysia.
He said more efforts are needed to assist the Rohingya, and the MPs from across the divide could work together to spread information on the refugees' condition when they get.
Deputy Transport Minister Datuk Aziz Kaprawi (BN-Sri Gading) told the refugees during the launching of a Malaysian-sponsored madrasah at the camp that "Malaysia will be there for you until the end."
Besides contributing food and basic necessity supplies, the Malaysian government is also setting up a field hospital to provide specialist care to the refugees starting this Dec 1 as announced by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak recently.
It was reported that the MPs, together with delegates from the NSC, the National Disaster Management Agency (Nadma), the Transport Ministry and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, were on a two-day visit to Cox's Bazar for a first-hand look at Rohingya refugee camps, which are the largest in the world.