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Touching Hearts, Rekindling Hope

On 5-7 March 2018, RLA Foundation Singapore had the opportunity to visit the Kutupalong-Balukhali Extension Sites in Bangladesh which house more than 602,000 refugees from the Rakhine State.

The visit, which was hosted by United Nation High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)  Bangladesh, gave insights to the projects that were made possible, in part, by RLAF’s collection of over S$340,000 from all mosques in Singapore and the larger Singapore society. These include projects like the empowerment of women with technical skills, education of young children and coordinated services for refugees in health, community and transit centres.


We first walked through the older refugee camp which is populated by the first batches of refugees from as early as 1992. All 30,000 of them. The Women’s Centres empower women with production and technical skills like sewing and soap making.

The women, who are mostly vulnerable are paid for every production of soap and sanitary kit. More importantly, the vocational training that they receive gives them a sense of self-fulfillment as they are able to contribute to the larger refugee community in the camp.


The contribution by Singaporeans help sustain temporary learning centres such as Protivar Bikash. Children here learn English, Burmese, mathematics, science and arts. They also get psychosocial counselling and are taught hygiene and life skills. There are 134 temporary learning centres that empower children in the Kutupalong-Balukhali camp.

Early education is given to children aged 4 to 6, while older children up to 14 get a non-formal basic education. The curriculum is largely informal.


In a recent training that we organised, it was highlighted that inter-agency coordination is key in emergency response. This is especially needed in Kutupalong as the influx warrants a rapid and integrated response. The ‘’OO Zone” saw more than 20 agencies like UNHCR, Unicef, BRAC, Bangladeh Red Crescent Society (BRSC) converge.

The coordination can be seen in the management of the transit camp office, health and community centres where the immense medical and well-being needs are taken care of. Data is being consolidated and rigorously updated within a centralised app to further streamline the response.


Refugees in the Kutupalong camps are given tarpaulin tents which are later found out to be less durable in withstanding extreme temperature. The tarpaulins either ”melt” under hot sun or get moldy after rain. The agencies experimented with bamboo + tarpaulin homes that can withstand the impending monsoon. These new prototypes are also more spacious and have better ventilation. Innovation in times of crisis like this is key and the resources that we help contribute enable production of the prototype materials.


In between influx and response, the agencies face a dilemma in mitigating the deforestation of elephants. There are already casualties from trampling incidents as more forests in the north end, which used to be a habitat for the elephants, are being cleared to accommodate more refugees. They are exploring options in the conservation of elephants and protection for people living in settlement areas who may be exposed to human-elephant incidents. 

The influx of refugees into Bangladesh was unexpected and it has become the fastest refugee movement ever recorded. It is therefore important to highlight the role of the host community as they show remarkable generosity in helping the refugees.

As mentioned, the agencies are preparing for monsoon and race against time to improve shelters, drainage, roads and bridges. UNHCR describes this ”an emergency within an emergency”.

Mitigating these factors is tremendously uphill. It is on the shoulders of the international community, including Singaporeans to extend our hand whenever we can. Special thanks to UNHCR Bangladesh for hosting the meaningful and insightful visit.