Interview with Mr Meirion Thomas

Mr J Meirion Thomas is a consultant oncologist and general surgeon. He was a consultant surgeon at the Royal Marsden Hospital from 1986 until March 2015 when he retired. From 2007 until 2012 he held the Honorary Title of Professor of Surgical Oncology at Imperial College. He is now in full-time private practice at The Lister Hospital.

Meirion shares his experience of helping refugees

In November 2017, I was privileged to work for almost one week serving the Rohingya refugees with surgeon David Nott. The trip was arranged by Syria Relief and David’s charity organisation, the David Nott Foundation. A recent account of the ethnic cleansing of the stateless, minority Moslem people in Rakhine province, Myanmar (Burma), by the Burmese army was broadcast on “Crossing Continents: The Tula Toli Massacre” on BBC4, 23 November.

After thirty hours of travelling, we were met at Cox’s Bazar airport by Syria Relief, who had secured our medical registration. We were driven to a local government hospital about twenty miles from the refugee camps. There, in a ward, segregated from the Bangladeshi patients, were about fifty Rohingyan patients. Some were lying in beds and others on mats on the floor, holding up their notes and X-rays and waiting patiently for us to assess.

We were expecting to find gunshot wounds and burns but most of the patients presented classical general surgical problems including seven little boys lined up with long neglected, large congenital inguinal hernias. Three patients, each catheterised, aged 7, 17 and 50, presented with enormous bladder stones.

We performed seventeen operations in two days, having rented two operating theatres in the adjacent private hospital, negotiated and paid for by Syria Relief. We were expertly assisted by two French anaesthetists who had travelled with the group. The Bangladeshi theatre staff were efficient, industrious and delightful to work with: not unlike working in a UK hospital but without the late starts and long delays between cases. We did morning ward rounds and fortunately, had no complications.

We visited the so-called mega refugee camp which holds 600,000 people, strictly confined and controlled by the Bangladeshi military to prevent escape or integration with the surrounding population. Of this number, 40,000 were unaccompanied children, half of whom were orphans and the other half, hopeful of being reunited with their parents. The mega camp is 16km long and new refugees arrive daily. This was an experience we will never forget.

Having seen refugee camps on TV, we were expecting to find rows of tents or make-shift dwellings built in a grid fashion. Not at all, because of the hilly terrain interspersed with lakes of still water after the rainy season, some cabins were even perched on precarious hillsides. Wells and latrines were often situated next to each other. All food and clothing was delivered and distributed by NGOs.

Despite enormous humanitarian efforts, the living conditions are appalling, and unlikely to change for the majority of refugees in the forseeable future.

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