Rohingya Muslims, who crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, rest inside a school compound at Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh. Nearly 600 000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar's Rakhine state and arrived in Bangladesh since August 25 to avoid persecution that the United Nations has called ethnic cleansing. Picture: Dar Yasin/AP
Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) President Dr Joanne Liu describes her recent visit to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where a refugee crisis is unfolding after renewed violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar:

“Almost 600000 Rohingya refugees have sought safety in Bangladesh in the past two months. The numbers show no sign of slowing down - 40000 people crossed the border from Myanmar in the past two weeks in an indication of continuing violence in Rakhine.

It’s hard to comprehend the magnitude of the crisis until you see it with your own eyes.

The refugee settlements are precarious. They look like makeshift shelters made of mud and plastic sheeting, fixed together with bamboo and scattered across little hilltops. If you stop at the main entrance of Kutupalong settlement, which was home to several thousand Rohingyas before the recent influx, things look somewhat organised. But if you move deeper into the settlement, into the forests and areas with no roads, it’s another story. There are almost no services available and the vulnerability of people’s living conditions is shocking.

Families are living under plastic sheeting in muddy and flood-prone terrain. They have few belongings, are vulnerable to attacks from elephants, and have no access to clean water, latrines, food or health care. People are in survival mode,. People are taking each day as it comes, trying to secure the basics to get through the day.

The humanitarian response is scattered: plastic sheeting is handed out in one location, while bags of rice or water are distributed elsewhere.

In Kutupalong, where MSF has run a medical facility since 2009, we’ve raised our inpatient capacity from 50 beds to 70 beds and we see between 800 to 1000 patients every day. Our teams are treating things we shouldn’t normally see, such as adults collapsing or dying from dehydration because of a simple case of watery diarrhoea.

We’ve opened new medical, water and sanitation projects elsewhere in Cox’s Bazar, to better respond to the exponential growth in medical needs.

But more action is desperately needed. The camp is a public-health time bomb. Let’s also not forget the root cause of the displacement of the Rohingya, which is the crisis in Myanmar. People do not flee their homes without good reason.

They leave because their lives are in danger, and they have no other option. Hundreds of thousands of them remain trapped in Myanmar, living that terror and cut off from humanitarian aid.

For Bangladesh to welcome more than half a million people in two months is a tremendous and extraordinarily generous act. But it comes with incredible challenges. No country in the world can meet such enormous needs alone.

We urge the government of Bangladesh to keep its borders open, and the international community to support the courageous gesture.

It is the duty of donors to help prevent a public health disaster.

We can do that only by ensuring we cover the vital needs of a population that has faced violence, rape and torture. We need more organisations on the ground building latrines, installing water pumps, providing health care and distributing food. This can happen only if the government of Bangladesh facilitates the presence of aid and enables a critical mass of humanitarian organisations.

* Liu is the Médecins sans Frontières international president on Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent