Jaana Laine is expecting to see malnourished mothers, under-weight infants, and possibly an outbreak of cholera when she arrives at a refugee camp on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border today.
It’s a far cry from the pristine hospital environment the Lohja midwife is used to. But she’ll be spending a month at a joint Finnish-Norwegian field hospital run by the Red Cross and partly funded by the Finnish Foreign Ministry.
“I have heard and read that the environment is really not easy there. It’s monsoon time and there are heavy rains. It’s muddy. And during one month 450,000 refugees have arrived from Myanmar to Bangladesh” Laine tells News Now Finland in the hours before she leaves Helsinki, heading for the small coastal city of Cox’s Bazaar.
“There is malnutrition, so the children are really under weight. There has been diarrhea, a lack of latrines, so diarrhea is a daily problem. There is not yet cholera, but it is a really big risk that a cholera epidemic will start there. There is some kind of shelter for the refugees, and three out of four are women and children. But the shelters are temporary, they have a roof only” she says.
Finnish bureaucracy can move very slowly, but the Foreign Ministry fast-tracked a request from the Red Cross to help fund a field hospital for the refugees.
“We don’t do it very often, but we can. It’s one of our advantages” says Claus Jerker Lindroos, Director at the Foreign Ministry’s Unit for Humanitarian Assistance.
“Normally we provide the bulk of our humanitarian funding during the first quarter of the year, then another round towards the end of the year, but in the case of sudden crises, we can actually do it within two or three days, very quickly. Our internal rules say it is standard to take a decision within 72 hours” he explains.
The Finnish government is giving €380,000 towards the cost of funding the Red Cross field hospital, something Minister for Foreign Aid and Development Kai Mykkänen thinks is urgently required.
“Medical aid, especially, must be arranged urgently for these people, who have been driven out of their homes, to prevent their situation from getting even worse” says Mykkänen.
“Many have been forced to travel long distances in difficult conditions. There is a true need for the field hospital the Finnish Red Cross is supplying” he adds.
The Finnish team, with nine doctors, nurses, an IT specialist and a logistics expert, will put the large hospital together within 48 hours of arriving at the refugee camp. Before that, they’ll have a field triage unit assembled within just fifteen minutes, to start seeing patients.
And building a hospital is no small construction job.
“Everyone we send, regardless of how expensive their fingers are, including surgeons, work to put it together” says Andreas von Weissenberg, Head of International Disaster Management at the Finnish Red Cross.
It’s a sixty bed hospital made from tents, and covers the size of a football pitch. Inside, is everything you can think of to be self-sufficient for a month – except diesel and a water supply.
“There is surgery. There is mother and child health and delivery wards, and of course a clinic for everyday non-acute health issues” says von Weissenberg.
“There is x-ray machine and life support. Consumables [like bandages] and medicines. We can resupply, yes, sometimes with local procurement, and sometimes extra medicines we have to get from elsewhere”.
“Twenty five, thirty years of planning has gone into make it as light and practical as possible” he says.
The Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar are from Myanmar’s Muslim minority, and fled reported rapes, assaults, extra judicial killings and a scorched earth policy in their towns and villages.
In August, Rohingya rebels launched coordinated attacks on dozens of Myanmar police and army posts. The United Nations says the response from the Myanmar military amounts to “ethnic cleansing” with the intention of forcing the Rohingya out of Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
“The Organization of Islamic Cooperation has also taken a strong interest in the situation in Myanmar” he adds.
The August incidents weren’t the first attacks on Rohingya, who mostly live in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. They’ve faced years of persecution, something that Minister Kai Mykkänen raised with Myanmar’s de facto leader, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi when he met her earlier this year.
“I pointed out that we cannot accept violence, and that the acts of violence in the region of Rakhine have an impact on the credibility of the entire democracy process” Mykkänen said at the time.
“I was assured that the [Myanmar] government will arrange an investigation into the events and take action if evidence of violence is found. The human rights situation in Myanmar must and should be addressed immediately” he said.
While the Finnish aid will be welcomed on the ground, it might even be too little, too late, as the scale of the crisis deepens daily.
On Monday this week, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi visited one refugee camp and said the situation remained “desperate”.
“Despite every effort by those on the ground, the massive influx of people seeking safety rapidly outpaced capacities to respond […] More is needed, and fast, if we are to avoid further deterioration” he said.
Finnish midwife Janna Laine has the support of her hospital in Lohja, and her family, as she begins work this morning on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.
The scale of the humanitarian crisis unfolding there means the Finnish Red Cross team will have their work cut out for them.
With their pop-up hospital, they do as much as they can before another rotation of Finns arrives next month, when the refugees will surely still be there.
“They are really thankful for all kinds of help and treatment, because they don’t have big expectations” says Laine.
Two hours later, she’s already on a plane to Bangladesh.