Cordaid and 4 other NGOs of the Dutch relief Alliance have launched an emergency response for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Dilanga Manuweera, who coordinates Cordaid’s relief efforts: “Winter is coming, mudslides are waiting to happen and hundreds of thousands are stuck in makeshift camps. We have to act fast.”
Cox’s Bazar district is known as the world’s longest beach. It’s a major Asian tourist attraction. But these days it is also the centre of one of the world’s major refugee crises. The contrast couldn’t be bigger: overcrowded and unsafe camps next to posh resorts.
‘We give them our land, we share our food’
Dilanga was appalled by the sheer scale of the crisis when he visited the area just recently. “The scale of these camps – it takes over an hour to walk through them – and the speed at which they were erected are impressive. Refugees built them in just a few months. Nearly a million Rohingya have recently fled to Bangladesh. They clear the land, cut trees, settle, collect firewood and somehow find a way to survive. In the process they create nothing less than small, makeshift towns.”
Pintu William Gomes is senior disaster manager from Caritas Bangladesh – Cordaid’s implementing partner. He explains it’s not the first time Bangladesh is dealing with an influx of forcibly displaced Rohingya people.
“They came, in ever increasing numbers, in 1978, in 1993. Now the scale of the influx is unparalleled. The majority of the over 2 million Rohingya people in Myanmar have left the country. Most of them came to Bangladesh. Even though we are a poor country and have our own development priorities, each time we gave them our land, we shared our food and opened up for the international community. We are doing it now – just recently Caritas Bangladesh distributed food to 180.000 refugees. But our resources are too small to meet the overwhelming needs.”
“We’re setting up new camps, on less eroded terrain, with better lighting, better shelters, safer sanitation conditions. We’re reducing risks and insecurities as much as possible.”
Pintu William Gomes, senior disaster manager Caritas Bangladesh
Someera (27) and her 2 children have been staying in the camp for 1 month. “Washing facilities are located too far away,” Someera says, “making it insecure for women to go there, especially at night.” (© Cordaid / Dilanga Manuweera)
Hungry, exhausted and traumatized
Dilanga talked to many people inside the camps and they all have a similar story. “People say their houses were burnt down, they had to run for their lives and have been surviving in Bangladesh for months. They are hungry, exhausted and traumatized.” Caritas Bangladesh extensively interviewed a large number of refugees and confirms Dilanga’s findings. Pintu Gomes: “Most people lost everything they had, many lost relatives. They walked for days to reach the safety of Bangladesh.”
“Part of Cordaid’s intervention is to address the GBV concerns of women, by making gender friendly shower facilities and gender specific latrines.”
Dilanga Manuweera, Cordaid emergency aid coordinator
Seeking refuge in dangerous locations
It is a bitter irony that locations where refugees seek security, pose a security threat in themselves. Dilanga explains: “Many refugees have settled on steep hills. But this is a rain and flood prone area. Mudslides are waiting to happen now that the rainy season is about to start. The at risk population is huge. This is why the Bangladesh government has started allocating safer plots of land. In one of these new spots we are now rolling out emergency operations.” Pintu Gomes adds: “Caritas Bangladesh and other agencies are upgrading the land while maintaining the natural topography. We’re setting up new camps, on less eroded terrain, with better lighting, better shelters and safer sanitation conditions. In short we are reducing risks and insecurities as much as possible.”
What is Cordaid doing?
In November Cordaid started its relief operations in one section of Kutapalong camp. We work in close collaboration with UNHCR, with the Dutch Relief Alliance and our implementing partner Caritas Bangladesh. Dilanga: “For the coming 6 months, we focus on shelter and distribution of non-food items, water and sanitation. Further, we contextualize these interventions toward the upcoming winter. Additionally, all interventions implemented will have protection attributes integrated in to them to ensure that highly vulnerable individuals are indeed, protected.”
With Caritas Bangladesh, Cordaid provides shelter materials to more than 10.000 individuals. “And in our training sessions refugees learn how to build and maintain safer and stronger temporary houses”, continues Dilanga. “We will also construct safe water points and organize hygiene promotion activities. To help people prepare for winter, we will distribute packages containing items designed to address specific needs.”
“At the start of this crisis, Bangladeshi shared whatever they had with the refugees. Now, the burden has become too big.”
Pintu William Gomes
Gender specific latrines
In overcrowded camps, women and children need protection most. “Women have to walk to bathing facilities” says Dilanga. “Especially at night this is too dangerous. So they don’t shower. Collecting water is a problem as well. Women are being intimidated by men, or worse. Part of Cordaid’s intervention is to address these concerns of women, by making gender friendly shower facilities and gender specific latrines.”
Child safety is another concern. The risk of children getting lost or even being trafficked is real. Creating child safe spaces inside the camps has shown to be effective. Just like creating referral networks, which basically means that health workers, community mobilizers and other aid workers pay extra care to spot and take care of possibly abandoned or neglected children. Child protection is addressed by other members of the Dutch emergency response.
The challenges of the emergency response
The relief operations come with many challenges. Dilanga mentions some of them. “There’s the sheer number of refugees, the disaster prone environment, the time pressure as winter is coming. And there’s the challenge of coordination. Given the acuteness of the crisis there’s a multitude of local and international agencies in a relatively small crisis area. We have to coordinate very carefully with all of them and with the Bangladesh government, to be effective, to prevent duplication and stepping on each other’s toes. Caritas Bangladesh, a very strong and well regarded partner in Bangladesh, is doing a great job in addressing many of these challenges. We’re lucky to work with them.”
“Given the acuteness of the crisis there’s a multitude of local and international agencies in a relatively small crisis area.”
Host communities become the minority
Another big challenge is the increasingly tense relationship between refugee and host community. With the huge influx of Rohingya refugees, local residents have become a minority in and around Cox’s Bazar. It is a situation that much concerns Pintu Gomes: “At the start of this crisis, Bangladeshi shared whatever they had with the refugees. Now, the burden has become too big. Assessments show that 85% of the refugees feel more or less secure where they are, but 65% of the host communities are upset. Health facilities are overstretched, market prices are flaring up. Dissatisfaction is still tolerable, but tensions are rising. If nothing changes, things could turn for the worse. To prevent this, the host community needs to be assisted as well. We do whatever we can, but the truth is that resources are lacking.”
Read more about the Rohingya emergency response of the Dutch Relief Alliance.