Aid groups 'desperate' to communicate effectively with 1 million Rohingya refugees

A young boy announces where the nearest clinic can be found in Zone SS of Kutupalong-Balukhali Expansion Site in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo by: Kelli Rogers / Devex

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh — A young Rohingya boy wields a megaphone: Thrilled and shocked to have been entrusted with it.

He scurries across the scorched, scrubby ground of one of Kutupalong refugee camp’s distant zones, shouting out every few seconds where the nearest clinic can be found and how long it is open. Back toward the main road leading into the camp, a young woman sits behind a “feedback” box outside a food distribution center, pen and paper resting neatly beside her. And between these two points, aid workers can be seen going from shelter to shelter, checking in on newly settled families.

In every humanitarian crisis, affected communities need information immediately about how to access vital aid services or reconnect with family members. At the same time, they require established feedback mechanisms so that aid groups can better meet their needs.

Since late August, nearly 650,000 Rohingya have fled to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, from Myanmar, joining more than 200,000 refugees already living in registered and makeshift camps in the area. Here, aid groups are communicating with affected communities any way they can. Sporadic physical communication “hubs” dot the 3,000-acre Kutupalong-Balukhali Expansion Site, where refugees are being settled farther and farther from established services. Posters denoting proper hygiene methods and others declaring where services can be found are heavy on illustrations, accompanied by text in English, Bengali, which is the national language of Bangladesh, and Burmese.

The current suite of ad hoc strategies reflects an aid community unprepared for the rapid growth of a city-sized refugee camp. But communication challenges have also been compounded by the low literacy rate of the refugee population, the complexities of the Rohingya language, and a surge of aid groups unfamiliar with the local context.

A challenging response

Communication quickly becomes paramount when aid clusters grow from five to 50 organizations, and when a largely illiterate refugee population balloons from well over 200,000 to 1 million in three months. But it’s often not the first focus.

“I think the reason why you’re not seeing communications in the foreground is because communications isn’t at the forefront yet of the response,” Eric DeLuca, monitoring, evaluation, and learning manager for Translators without Borders, told Devex during a meeting in Cox’s Bazar in early November. “Communication isn’t the first thing people are thinking about or the first thing they have time for.”

Aside from the handful of organizations that were already working with the Rohingya population in Bangladesh’s seaside district, most groups responding now haven’t been able to rely on established local networks and are instead “building these community networks from scratch while also trying to build lifesaving interventions from scratch,” DeLuca said.

Rohingya is an oral language with no standardized written script. This adds to the challenges of creating effective signage or posters, which would ideally be accompanied by text familiar to the community. Typically, such signage could be pulled in from already-existing material created by groups in refugees’ home countries, but there are so few agencies working with Rohingya in Rakhine State that even if there were a standardized script, there is virtually nothing to draw on.

Plan International, just one of the many groups that entered the district in response to the August influx, is establishing its presence with the help of partner organizations and slowly recruiting staff who speak the Chittagong language, a dialect of Bengali spoken in Cox’s Bazar and it’s northern port city neighbor of Chittagong — and the language considered most similar to Rohingya.

Plan U.K. Emergency Response Manager Dominika Kronsteiner remembers early on in the response, when she went to interview five young women in a focus group — a process that took hours of translation, with a staff member translating her English to Bengali, and a local community mobilizer translating Bengali to Chittagonian.

Plan has since hired staff who speak both Chittagonian and English, Kronsteiner said, but competition for skilled staff with these language abilities has grown fierce. Translators without Borders, in the meantime, is busy training interpreters to add to the very limited pool of professionals, many of whom are immediately scooped up full time by international agencies struggling to speak with the communities they’re aiding.

Still, more than three-quarters of Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar feel they don’t have enough information to make good decisions, and almost two-thirds said they are unable to communicate with aid providers, according to a November report from Internews.

That struggle is reflected in the high number of attendees to the “Communications with Communities” working group in Cox’s Bazar, where Virginia Moncrieff, International Organization for Migration’s coordinator for the working group, told Devex she’s seen a surprisingly large turnout from aid agencies nearly “desperate” to form a more successful communications strategy.

“No one has the magic formula, but you can talk through systems that might work,” Moncrieff told Devex.

Communication as an afterthought?

Recent reports from Translators without Borders and Internews, based on interviews with Rohingya refugees and focus groups, paint a broader picture of a humanitarian sector that still treats communication as an afterthought — or relies on feedback channels preferred by the humanitarian community, rather than by the affected population.

“Part of the monitoring community even in Cox’s Bazar still believes that if I put out a poster that says ‘At this time there's the food distribution,’ or ‘Come to this place to get your shelter assignment,’... That's ‘communication with communities’ and it's finished, it's done. I've done my job,” said Anahi Ayala Iacucci, senior director for humanitarian programs at Internews.

The same goes for many traditional “feedback” mechanisms, Iacucci said, many of which — including ballot boxes — favor those who are able to write, and others that are established more to “check a box” rather than to ask questions during project design that could actually influence the work in real time.

In a crisis such as the one unfolding in Cox’s Bazar, two-way communication networks can provide a life-saving function, and “it’s necessary to solicit honest community feedback in formats that makes the community feel comfortable,” Iacucci said.

Many organizations have tapped into the “Mahzi” system established in the camps — which refers to an elected leader in the community who represents up to 200 families. This individual, almost exclusively male, is tasked with checking in with community members and taking their feedback to the Bangladesh army or to an NGO. A 20-year-old Mahzi who goes by the name of Shofique, whom Devex spoke with in Kutupalong, said he checks in with families in his block every day to determine what their needs are. The effort keeps him so busy, that “often, I cannot find a lunchtime,” he said.

But an over-reliance on the Mahzi system could also be problematic. Christian Aid recently held a meeting with several Mahzis to understand whether they were sharing what they heard from the community with Christian Aid staff.

“The general feeling from them was they didn’t want to complain because they were concerned that support would be cut off,” said Becky Mallows, emergency program officer for the Rohingya crisis. “They didn’t want to seem ungrateful, an issue we’ve faced in other responses but maybe more so in this case because of how persecuted Rohingya have been in Myanmar.”

The Mahzi system can also leave women — young women especially — out of the communication process. And, when Internews asked refugees to rank who they trusted for information, Mahzi fell after friends, religious leaders, mobile phones, community leaders, army and TV, according to their report.

In order to communicate more holistically, aid workers should prioritize establishing relationships with a diverse group of respected members of the community, Iacucci said.

“I think that the best way for us to interact with these communities is to look at who they trust now, and work through those channels, because it's a very suspicious community that has all the reasons to be suspicious towards everyone else,” she said.

If an agency wants to set up a physical communication hub, for example, they should consider inviting a religious leader to come once a week, or offer a space so community members can hold their own meetings at the nearest information point.

Next steps?

A combination of tools such as megaphone announcements, manned communication booths, and illustrated posters will continue to be part of the communications strategy moving forward — although each can prove its own challenge.

“As an NGO community, we’ll have to be fairly inventive, as some things are easier to show than others,” said Plan’s Kronsteiner, who noted that the Preventing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse network hired a creative designer to create a simple, “pictorial representation of the prevention of sexual abuse and exploitation.”

It was just about impossible, she said, and the idea was scrapped.

SMS interventions will be limited as long as the Rohingya population is forbidden from accessing Bangladeshi SIM cards, but several groups are looking into a physical phone system that would provide a line of communication to a staffed call center. Radio has also become a player and will likely have a bigger role in the future, as BBC Media Action continues to support broadcasters to produce a daily radio program for Rohingya people and host communities on topics such as nutrition and health.

For now, groups continue to navigate the complexities that verbal communication poses.

Plan recently simplified language in their survey questions to make sure that words like “distress” and “domestic violence” were translated in a way that is understandable to the Rohingya population. For the education and child protection joint rapid assessment they’re conducting, staff was equipped with questionnaires in English, in Bengali, and also had questions recorded in Rohingya they could play in case of comprehension difficulty, according to Plan Education Adviser Emilia Sorrentino. 

The group has also made changes to the way they interview and provide services to young women, Sorrentino said, having learned that adolescent girls are unlikely to be allowed to travel very far from their block in the camp.

Face-to-face interaction, such as volunteers conducting household surveys or community health workers doing outreach campaigns about sanitation and hygiene practices, will continue to be vital — but it’s not a quick means of information sharing, and part of the fear right now is what would happen if a potentially catastrophic event were to develop quickly.

“If a cyclone was projected to come here and you had two days warning, do we have the networks and systems set up to mobilize that information quickly?” DeLuca said. “Probably not, is the reality.”

Read more Devex coverage of the Rohingya crisis.

About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers has worked as an Associate Editor and Southeast Asia Correspondent for Devex, with a particular focus on gender. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has reported from more than 20 countries.