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A four-day-old Rohingya boy born in IRC-supported women's centre in Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh
Rohingya crisis

Starting life in the world’s biggest refugee camp

Photo: Jessica Wanless/IRC

At four days old, he doesn’t yet have a name, or a birth certificate. The young Rohingya baby boy is embarking on a life already more challenging than most—born an unregistered refugee in the world’s biggest refugee camp.

The baby is cradled in his mother’s arms as they wait for his first check-up at a health centre supported by the International Rescue Committee. “This is the first time I have given birth in a health facility,” says Shahera*, who has four other children.  

Volunteer Fatima cradles Shahera's baby. She helped deliver him at the IRC-supported women's centre. Photo: Jessica Wanless/IRC

Every day around 60 babies are born in Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, home to 700,000 Rohingya Muslims who fled persecution and violence in Myanmar. An estimated 80 percent of mothers in the camp give birth inside their makeshift homes rather than in health centres, meaning they don’t have access to medicine and are at risk of complications. The shelters, built with bamboo and tarpaulin on steep and crowded hillsides, usually have dirt floors. Often, clean water isn’t readily available, so the chance of infection and disease is high.

“For women who give birth at night, things are even more dangerous,” explains Esther Nyambu, the IRC’s emergency reproductive health coordinator in Bangladesh. “The steep paths make it hard to navigate, and with the monsoon rains these are now slippery and difficult at the best of times. Much of the camp does not have any lights to guide the mothers to the centre.”

IRC-supported community volunteers like Fatima go door-to-door in the camp to encourage expectant mothers to visit the centre before they are due.  “I went to Shahera’s house a day before she gave birth,” says Fatima. “I could hear her crying and asked her why she was upset. She told me she was pregnant and she was in pain. I reassured her and told her that everything is going to be OK.” Fatima then told Shahera about the IRC-supported centre where she’d be able to receive medicine and healthcare from nurses and midwives without any cost.

Fatima, right, visits Shahera and her newborn at the women's health center in Kutupalong. Volunteers like Fatima go door-to-door in the camp to encourage expectant mothers to visit the center before they are due.

Fatima, right, visits Shahera and her newborn at the women's health centre in Kutupalong. Volunteers like Fatima go door-to-door in the camp to encourage expectant mothers to visit the centre before they are due.

Photo: Jess Wanless/IRC

Shahera heeded Fatima’s advice. When she went into labour, she sent her husband to the centre for help and volunteers came to the house to collect her.

The health team gave her pain medication and as the midwife on duty, also called Shahera, recalls, “lots of encouragement and emotional support so she knew that the delivery would be normal and that she was safe.”

"I took the responsibility of cleaning the newborn - I was overwhelmingly excited about him," Fatima proudly remembers.

Shahera and her husband were grateful for the care and nurturing that would have been otherwise unavailable. “I got strong within two days, but this would not have been possible at home,” says  Shahera. “I could not afford all the things I need and there would be no one there to take care of me.”

Fatima, a widow raising her 8-year-old daughter in the camp, recalls the pride she and health centre colleagues felt helping bring Shahera's little boy safely into the world.

Photo: Timothy Nesmith/IRC

The difficult and dangerous environment in the camp increases the risk of miscarriage and illness.

“It’s common that mothers don’t have access to the vitamins and minerals needed for a healthy baby,” Esther Nyambu says. “After the baby is born, rates of disease and infection are also higher. That’s why centres like the IRC-supported comprehensive women’s centre are so important for both mothers and babies.”

Today the centre’s staff are delighted to see both mother and baby — both are doing well, and everyone is celebrating.  “I would tell anyone expecting to give birth to come to the centre,” says  Shahera. “The doctor and the midwives took such good care of me.”

The IRC and local partner RTMI provide comprehensive care, including family planning and childbirth services to hundreds of at the women’s health centre in Kutupalong refugee camp, alongside psychosocial activities, support and counselling.

*First name only to protect identity