In what the UN calls “the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis,” nearly 1 million Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh, escaping recent violence and ethnic persecution in Myanmar.1 Though many have lived in Myanmar since as early as the 12th century, the Rohingya are not considered national citizens, meaning that they face limited access to healthcare, schools, and jobs.2

The violence began in August 2017 when a militant group attacked police posts, causing troops and Buddhist mobs to respond by burning Rohingya villages, raping women, and killing civilians. According to humanitarian aid group Médicin Sans Frontiéres, more than 6,700 Rohingya have been killed in the violence.3

Their struggle is only one of the numerous refugee crises that have occurred in the past decade, as filmmaker Ai Weiwei documents in his new film Human Flow. After traveling to 23 nations and 40 refugee camps for his film, Weiwei wrote, “Not a single refugee we met had willingly left their home, even when home was impoverished and underdeveloped. There [was] simply no way for them to stay. Fleeing [was] the only choice they [had] to preserve their own lives and the lives of those they love.”4

Throughout the globe, countless humans have been forced to leave their homes due to war, persecution, or natural disaster. In the meantime, refugee camps house these individuals, holding as many as 800,000 people within concentrated spaces, in the case of Cox Bazaar, the primary area of Rohingya refugee camps.5

So the question emerges: how can we ensure humane living conditions for those awaiting the day when they can return to their homes? While there are many elements that constitute proper humanitarian aid for refugee camps, one thing that we don’t often discuss is toilets.

What Poor Sanitation Means for Global Health

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 4.5 billion people lack access to safe sanitation worldwide. However, a lack of proper sanitation facilities leads to diseases like cholera, polio, and diarrheal-related illnesses from the uncontained spread of faecal matter. This has enormous health consequences, both short-term and long-term. For one, diarrheal-related diseases are the second leading cause of death for children under 5. However, those who survive also face malnutrition and stunting from an inability to adequately absorb nutrients due to frequent episodes of diarrhea. These are early childhood conditions that have immense outcomes in later-life, driving adult health and earning capacity.6

In particular, refugee camps have a lot to lose from inadequate sanitation, as crowded spaces quicken the possible spread of diseases. However, these set of maps created by Reuters show that many areas of the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox Bazaar, Bangladesh are too far from latrines, or are too close to shelters, threatening the safety of water supplies. Alarmingly, a study conducted by the WHO and Bangladesh Department of Public Health, 86% of 1,018 water samples taken from households and wells tested positive for E.coli, indicating faecal contamination.5But the lack of adequate sanitation in these camps has even more dire consequences for women and girls.

Access to Toilets is a Gender-Based Issue

According to Shouvik Das, External Relations Officer of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Bangladesh, many of the camps lack separate gender toilets; additionally, the latrines are typically far from their shelters and lack proper privacy. Because women and girls are afraid to go far to use toilets, many resort to defecating openly near their shelters.7 Additionally, “women are afraid of cleaning themselves when people are around, so they use toilets or water points at night or early morning, and they have no safety. Some women drink less water and stop consuming foods to avoid using toilets,” said Nazmun Nahar, gender justice programme manager at Oxfam International.8 These practices, due to the lack of adequate sanitation facilities, even further threaten refugee health.

Dignity begins with Toilets

Sanitation is a basic need that should be accessible to everyone, and toilets are crucial to promoting the health and dignity of refugees. Currently, Selfless has been working on water and sanitation projects in Cox Bazaar, Bangladesh you can read about our recent work here.


To learn more about the Rohingya refugee crisis, you can visit these links:






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Image Free for Use, fromBlue Diamond Gallery

What has the Rohingya refugee crisis got to do with toilets?

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