A message from Bangladesh on the first anniversary of the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar

Rebecca Horn, a freelance international humanitarian worker from Liverpool, working in areas of conflict and disaster around the world, reflects on her latest journey to South Asia:

For the last four weeks I’ve been in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh – close to the border with Myanmar where this time last year hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people crossed, by whatever means they could, to escape the extreme violence being inflicted on them by the army in Myanmar.  There are plenty of distressing news reports where you can see the horrors people went through as they tried to escape.

'it was the most shocking experience I’ve had
since I started doing this work 15 years ago'

I was here for a week in June, preparing for my latest job, and it was the most shocking experience I’ve had since I started doing this work 15 years ago. I’m ashamed to say that I had worked in so many refugee situations that I’d become a bit immune to them. In many places I work, there are so many refugee situations that there is a great deal of expertise in countries like Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia in responding quickly and reasonably effectively. Not so in Bangladesh. Here, they have a lot of experience in responding to natural disasters, such as cyclones, which are intense, somewhat predictable and the aftermath, whilst distressing, can be dealt with by the government and other organisations within a few weeks. But they have no experience of a refugee situation, so the response was chaotic and hampered by the government of Bangladesh refusing to recognise that this is not short-term. Until recently, the government would not give permission for any ‘permanent’ structure – so nothing could be built with bricks or nails, only with bamboo, tarpaulin and ties. Even now, no schools can be established in the camps, permission is denied for any activities for the Rohingya which focus on enabling them to earn an income or learn new skills. No activities focusing on mental health issues are allowed, or on conflict management between the local Bangladesh population and the Rohingya – because there is no conflict, according to the government.

Jamtoli refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

Jamtoli refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

This combination of the extreme distress of the Rohingya – which stems not only from recent horrific events, but also decades of persecution – the labyrinthine rules of the Bangladesh government which seem designed to make life so difficult for the Rohingya that they go back to Myanmar, and the extreme stress of staff trying to respond to the situation in impossible circumstances, just about tipped me over the edge in June. It was harder for me because it was such a short visit, so I was thrown into a situation I was personally unprepared for and didn’t have time to adjust to it before leaving again. The 20-hour journey and five-hour time difference didn’t help.

Needless to say, I was not at all looking forward to coming back here for a month a few weeks after my initial visit. Not at all.

I’m doing this job for Church of Sweden (CoS), who are the psychosocial specialists within the ACT Alliance. ACT Alliance partners can request psychosocial technical support from CoS, and if the request is approved then people like me are selected from the CoS psychosocial roster and asked to go and support the requesting organisation. The nature and timeframe of the requests vary – there might be a focus on staff well-being, or on programme design, or on supporting programme evaluation, and very often it involves helping the organisation to integrate psychosocial elements into their existing programmes. This means that we look at what they are currently doing (which might be education, child protection, livelihoods or any other type of programme) and we identify ways in which their work could be adjusted in order to strengthen the psychosocial well-being of the affected population. We then support the organisation to do this, through training, mentoring and so on.

I’ve done a lot of jobs for CoS, and I really enjoy working for the ACT Alliance.  But this is the most complicated ‘deployment’ (as they are called) that I’ve done. The request came from four ACT Alliance partners working with the Rohingya people in Bangladesh, each of which has different needs. The largest of the four is Christian Aid, and this is the organisation hosting me and my colleague – so we’re using their office space and staying in their guest-house. We’re here for a month July/August, then I will continue to provide remote support so that the work we’ve begun can continue, then we will come back for all of October. We are trying to integrate the psychosocial approach into the systems and structures of the ACT Alliance organisations so that the changes will be maintained in the long-term. This is so much harder than turning up and doing a few training sessions!

Anyway, enough about my work challenges - let me tell you something about the camps.  There are now close to one million Rohingya (we can’t really call them ‘refugees’ since Bangladesh hasn’t signed the Refugee Convention so doesn’t recognise them as such) in a strip of land between Cox’s Bazar and the border with Myanmar. Some have been here since the 1970s, there was another influx in the 1990s, but the majority arrived last August - September. The land where the new camps were established was originally forest – a reserve where elephants lived. The trees have all been cut down, and the elephants are now trapped in the small sections of forest remaining, unable to cross to the areas where they used to graze.  There are ‘elephant watchtowers’ in the camps, and people are trained to watch for elephants approaching the camp, and the scare them away with lights.

Two elephant watch towers

Two elephant watch towers

The land was also used by the very poor Bangladeshi communities to cultivate rice and vegetables.  There are still places within and around the camps which they can use for cultivation, but these have been greatly reduced by the establishment of the camps. Also, many of the schools surrounding the camps have closed because teachers (who are among the few educated local people) have left to work for organisations working in the camps which pay much better.  The local communities were extremely hospitable and welcoming when the Rohingya first arrived – they provided the help they needed before any governmental or non-governmental agencies were on the scene. But it’s understandable that people feel that they were already struggling before the Rohingya arrived, and now their lives are even worse. Many organisations now provide services for the local Bangladeshi communities as well as the Rohingya – and recently the government introduced a requirement for any new projects to focus around 30% of their funding on the ‘host communities’, as they are called in humanitarian-speak.

Trying to reach a host community village

Trying to reach a host community village

The monsoon season is coming to an end and, incredibly, it was not as disastrous for the Rohingya as many (including me) expected. The camps are built on hills, so the risk of landslides was high, but organisations identified the houses most at risk and moved them before the height of the monsoon season. Christian Aid manage one of the camps, and although nine houses collapsed during the rains, nobody was hurt. A really amazing achievement on the part of Christian Aid. The monsoons are more or less over now, but September is the cyclone season so that will bring a whole new set of challenges.

There is lots of good work going on in the camps – for example Christian Aid have set up ‘community kitchens’, where five women at a time come on a rota basis to cook for their families. There are gas stoves in the kitchens, so the women don’t have to fetch firewood (a hazardous activity) or build smoky fires in their homes, causing respiratory problems for them and their families. It also means that the women build relationships with each other, and a Christian Aid staff member can take the opportunity to pass information about forthcoming events (e.g. food distribution) or about issues affecting the well-being of women and their families (e.g. hygiene messages).  This is a great example of the psychosocial approach in practice!

'Please don’t stop buying clothes made in Bangladesh
because you’re concerned about workers’ conditions!'

To end on a positive, and slightly different, note – when I was in Dhaka I met with the head of an ACT Alliance partner called Diaconia. They have been working in Bangladesh for many years, and have a project specifically focusing on improving conditions in the garment industry after the Rana Plaza disaster. She told me that conditions in the garment industry have improved hugely in recently years; regulations are in place, monitoring is carried out and any problems identified are addressed. The message she asked me to pass on is – Please don’t stop buying clothes that are made in Bangladesh because you’re concerned about workers’ conditions! Many, many people in Dhaka and elsewhere rely on this industry, and the government and others have improved their safety and conditions exactly because they can’t afford to lose this business. Some good news!