Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya in Myanmar fleeing persecution across the border have completely overwhelmed Bangladesh’s ability to respond. International aid organizations in Bangladesh have never before dealt with such numbers of refugees with severe trauma.
CARE International has been on the ground from the outset, providing food, support, and basic services to refugees who have fled the violence. With a special focus on women, the organization has helped start health clinics specifically for that population, as well as a nutrition-monitoring program for children.
Nearly one year into the crisis, CARE in conjunction with the Bangladesh government is operating one block of a refugee camp with 25,000 residents.
Amid a crisis that has happened faster, and on a greater scale, than most aid workers can remember, agencies struggle to feed and protect more than half a million recently arrive Rohingya refugees.
The organization creates and manages spaces geared toward women, where refugees can receive the services they need — or just a cup of tea and a space to relax. Women who aren’t able to move around the camp are serviced by CARE outreach teams.
CARE Bangladesh Country Director Zia Choudhury said there is no sign the crisis will abate any time soon. Even if conditions improved immediately, it could take up to 10 years to safely return all refugees. This means the international aid community must formulate plans to aid refugees in the short, medium and long-term, even as the community struggles to adhere to international humanitarian standards in this context.
Choudhury recently spoke with Devex to discuss the unique aid challenges posed by a situation that escalated so quickly, and what obstacles remain ahead in caring for Rohingya in ballooning refugee camps.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is the international aid community getting right in the response to the Rohingya crisis?
There was a huge effort to quickly deploy staff and resources to try to meet the huge needs of the Rohingya population. There was a real dedication to quickly serve and also a quick recognition that this was a different kind of crisis compared to the ones which we, in Bangladesh, are used to dealing with.
We’re used to dealing with natural disasters — this is a refugee crisis, a protection crisis, where people have come over extremely traumatized and are facing even more threats to their protection. Many of us tried to learn quickly how these contexts are different.
There was a commitment early on from INGOs to work very closely with national NGO partners. A number of us committed to pushing the localization agenda — not to let it fall to the side simply because the scale of the emergency was so big. That meant working very closely with national organizations, trying to support them.
What do you feel the international aid community could improve upon in its response to this crisis?
It’s about ensuring that we are using a protection framework when we design and implement our programs. It’s very easy to get bogged down in the operational challenges — the logistics, the HR issues, the access issues, trying to get into the camps.
The conditions in the camps are so difficult in terms of the scale of people, the density of the population. I think it’s the densest refugee camp in the world — parts of Cox’s Bazar. The scale of the density and the inhospitable terrain, the haphazard planning, the poor placement of infrastructure such as water, latrines.
All of that has led to a drop in our standards and also in our accountability. It’s very easy in these contexts to simply say “okay, we can’t reach the international standards which we try to hold ourselves accountable.” We mustn’t use the excuse — “it was too difficult.”
Is that a product of the fact that the crisis came on so quickly and was so overwhelming?
There are several reasons why the international standards that we’ve developed are not being applied properly.
One is that many organizations don’t have a high-level commitment to those standards and they’re not being held to account by their own organizations. There needs to be an investment, and not all organizations invest in the same way.
There’s also the issue that many staff are not trained, or are not familiar, with applying these standards in a new context. Several hundred thousand people have just arrived. And while we have standards to respond, you do need to be trained, you do need to be given space and support.
In the early days, there were huge numbers of new staff joining, not all had an NGO or humanitarian background, so they had to be taken up to speed.
There have been reports of people telling stories of things that happened to them that don’t necessarily end up being true. Is that something that you run into, and does it impede the way you’re able to care for someone who has been through a traumatic event?
In the early weeks of the emergency, when there was a huge amount of chaos, people were scattered, separated from their families and communities.
CARE conducted a rapid gender assessment, and it was shocking — but also very relevant — that, of the dozens of women we spoke to scattered across different areas of the camps, there were very consistent stories about their experiences, about what they, themselves, had suffered or had witnessed. Also talking to men, we found relatively consistent stories.
As time goes on, it’s true that we have come across, sometimes, stories which we are unable to verify or we’re not sure of the veracity.
We are conscious that, in all refugee settings or in all humanitarian contexts, people have so many needs and are under so much pressure to live and to survive, that trying to gain access to aid becomes a huge challenge in itself, and people may tell you something which they think you want to hear in order to gain access to services. It can also be pressure from family members to “tell them you feel more sick than you are,” or “tell them you have a bigger headache than you actually do,” in order to get access to clinics.
It doesn’t affect our level of service because we’ve tried to create an environment — in our clinics and also in our safe spaces — where women can be very open and transparent about their needs, and the level of care we provide is necessarily very basic.
We’re also focused on providing initial medical treatment and also the most basic level of counseling, so people can speak about their issues.
Once you provide a space for people, and they build up a rapport with the aid teams, they’re generally transparent about their needs.
What have been some of the challenges in working with the Bangladesh government in the response?
The government, like the humanitarian organizations, are extremely stretched and have been from the beginning. This is also completely new to them.
Any government in the world, no matter how rich or organized, would struggle to manage 600,000 to 700,000 people arriving in their country in the space of less than six months.
The Bangladesh government has made a valiant attempt but they are, of course, struggling. They are understaffed, so completely stretched in dealing with new applications. The people that CARE work with in the government are incredibly well intentioned and trying their best, but are simply struggling with the weight of the work they have.
One of our requests to the government is to extend the electricity lines into the camps and try to allow more generators. And also to extend their police network. It would help us, as aid workers, to work around the clock. It would also help the refugees to feel safer and better access our services.