Relief Workers Race Against Time To Shelter Burmese Refugees As the Rainy Season Approaches


`WE asked, `What is your immediate need?' " says Arne Kjaersgaard, recalling a conversation with officials overseeing the relief effort for the Burmese refugees who have fled to Bangladesh in recent months. "And they said, 'Shelter and shelter and shelter.'"

So Mr. Kjaersgaard, the Dhaka-based representative of the Danish arm of Save the Children, sought money from Denmark's charitable funding agency and permission from the Bangladeshi government.

Within two weeks, 6,200 rolls of nylon-reinforced plastic sheeting - enough material to provide some cover for 50,000 people - had been flown to Dhaka and trucked first to Cox's Bazar and then to a refugee camp called Ghundum.

Now Kjaersgaard and a representative of Children of the World, a Swiss agency that is cosponsoring the effort, were at the camp - a site that relief officials say will soon hold 70,000 people. As a trial run a bamboo frame had been erected and the green sheeting stretched overhead. The long, shed-like structure was divided into five sections of about 12 by 12 feet.

Each section would house a family of refugees, a half-dozen people or more.

"Plastic is plastic," says Kjaersgaard, fingering the material. "We could have gone for something much more expensive, but then we could only house something like 4,000 people."

Children of the World and Kjaersgaard's group, Red Barnet, spent a little more than $300,000 each to purchase and ship the sheeting, along with a half-dozen water pumps, 50 tons of milk powder, and a load of high-nutrition biscuits. Dhaka asks assistance

The mass flight of refugees from Burma's Arakan Province, mostly Muslims of the Rohingya ethnic group, prompted officials in Dhaka to ask for the assistance of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in February. But response to the UNHCR's international appeal for $27.5 million in donations, issued on March 9, has been modest at best.

As of the middle of this month $7 million was in hand, mostly in contributions of $1 million each from European countries and Japan. Slightly larger amounts - among them $3 million from the United States and $2.5 million from Sweden - have been pledged, but not received, according to the Dhaka office of the UNHCR. The operation is in "tight financial straits," says one relief worker in Cox's Bazar. Scarce resources

The government of Bangladesh has, by all accounts in Cox's Bazar, mounted an impressive response to the Rohingya influx. "This effort is all the more remarkable," says a recent UN information note, "as the country, one of the world's poorest, is still recovering from the devastating effects of last year's cyclone. Thus, resources are scarce and overstretched."

Plying the roads in Cox's Bazar and around the refugee camps are a variety of vehicles: the Land Cruisers of the UNHCR, which is helping the government coordinate the relief work; the minibuses of the Dutch and French arms of Doctors Without Borders; and jeeps belonging to Islamic relief agencies, Bangladeshi and international nongovernmental organizations, and government officials.

Aside from the need for shelter, officials are also struggling to provide health care and adequate sanitation, to feed undernourished children, and to furnish enough drinking water for the refugees. Temperatures regularly reach 100 degrees.

Kjaersgaard has brought a video camera with him, and he is making a tape that he hopes can be used in Denmark to raise funds for the Rohingyas. A longtime development worker in Bangladesh, he doesn't make exclamations about the "human disaster," as some have termed the crisis.

But he carefully shoots the leafy hovels that have spontaneously sprung up outside the camps, the children who bear the clearly defined ribs of malnutrition, and the hundreds of Burmese men and women, squatting under black umbrellas in the midday sun, who are waiting to register at Ghundum.

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