MORE than 40 British doctors, nurses and firefighters will today fly into Bangladesh to help hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing persecution in Burma.
It is the first ever deployment of the UK’s Emergency Medical Team since it was certified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2016.
The team of British heroes will begin a six-week deployment in the fishing port Cox’s Bazar – where many of the refugees are living in makeshift camps.They will help tackle a deadly diptheria outbreak following an appeal from the WHO and the Bangladeshi government.
Ministers said the team will help desperate Rohingya Muslims who have suffered “harrowing” abuse from Burmese soldiers. A rapid outbreak of diptheria has already taken an estimated 20 deaths – with 1,470 suspected cases and an alarming 160 new cases detected every day.
An estimated 650,000 Rohingya men, women and children have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh following persecution from the Burmese military in their native state of Rakhine, which began in August.
Health minister Steve Brine said the deployment of selfless clinical staff marked “another proud moment in the history of the NHS”.
International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt said: “This will be an absolutely critical deployment, in a race against time for men, women and children at risk of dying from one of the world’s cruellest infections. Our brave British medical heroes are the world leaders in saving lives, acting rapidly in crisis to avert a humanitarian catastrophe.
“I have heard first-hand the harrowing stories of Rohingya families who have escaped persistent persecution, violence and tragedy.In the face of this new horror it is absolutely right that we step up to end their relentless suffering and stop them falling prey to a rampaging, preventable disease that could kill thousands.”
Meanwhile a British aid worker has warned that the Rohingya crisis will worsen in the new year and cannot afford to “slip off the radar”.
Caroline Holt, a Red Cross worker, who helped set up a hospital in the camp, said she had never seen such “desperate and terrified looks in people’s eyes”.
The 43-year-old, originally from Oldham, Greater Manchester, who now works from Geneva, warned the crisis had not yet “peaked” as she called on the public to continue offering support.
“This isn’t going anywhere, these people don’t have anywhere to go back to,” she said.
“They’ve faced the most traumatic time over recent months and yet come through it with this strength and dignity and completely deserve our support – need our support, actually.
“The resources are limited and we still need more funds, without a doubt.”
She added: “It can’t afford to slip off the radar.”
Rohingya Muslims have described a systematic campaign of murder and violence, which the United Nations branded as “ethnic cleansing”. Burmese authorities have blamed the trouble on Rohingya militants.
Refugees who make the arduous journey to Bangladesh are often traumatised, injured and in need of medical support.Ms Holt spent a month as a deputy team leader with the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC) field hospital in Cox’s Bazar in October.
The 60-bed hospital and eight-bed isolation unit was built from crates of supplies during her deployment with the Norwegian Red Cross, while two outpatient departments deal with an additional 200 patients every day.Refugees are first sent to a transition camp, with those in the most critical state transported by bus and prioritised for treatment.
Ms Holt, who has worked with the Red Cross in disaster zones for 13 years, said: “I have never seen the faces… I’ve never seen the eyes, the sort of desperate and terrified looks in people’s eyes.”
She said she found herself “combing the queue” to give oral rehydration solution to babies and those who “looked as if they wouldn’t really last much longer”.
“You just don’t know what people have been through,” she said. “We met them as they came and we tried to help them in the best way we could in that immediate sense.”
Ms Holt recalled a woman who left the Red Cross hospital two and a half hours after giving birth. “Her motivation clearly was to get back to her other children and to make sure that everybody was safe,” she said.
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“I think that’s the thing that sticks with me – the absolute dignity and strength of these people.”
Despite their desperate plight, refugees queued patiently at the hospital as they waited for support, ensuring the facility was not overwhelmed, and have tried to establish communities in their new setting.
“Even in the worst of humanity, when you see people suffering so much and in such terrible conditions, there’s just some really beautiful glimpses of humanity,” Ms Holt said.