Q&A: IOM Bangladesh mission chief on post-monsoon priorities for Rohingya

Staff from IOM Bangladesh constructing bamboo bridges for emergency access inside the Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar. Photo by: IOM Bangladesh

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh — Aid workers in Bangladesh’s seaside district of Cox’s Bazar are currently focused on one thing: Ensuring vulnerable Rohingya refugees survive a lengthy monsoon season. Groups have already relocated more than 30,000 of the most at-risk population away from barren, landslide-prone hillsides, while others are training refugees in cyclone preparedness and search and rescue.

Heavy rains several weeks ago caused multiple landslides, damaging shelters, and latrines in a foreboding example of what excess rainfall could mean for the overcrowded camps. The area currently houses more than 700,000 Rohingya who fled persecution in Myanmar nearly one year ago.

While preparation for the rainy season has commanded much of the humanitarian community’s attention, other priorities also require immediate action, according to George Gigauri, International Organization for Migration’s new chief of mission in Bangladesh.

George Gigauri, new chief of mission in Bangladesh at the International Organization for Migration. Photo from: Twitter

Gigauri’s most recent trip to Cox’s Bazar, which took place after the first big rains, allowed him to visit the newest land granted for refugee relocation by the Bangladesh government, as well as visit several locations for potential deep borehole construction — an urgent need in order to draw safe drinking water and to replace overused hand pumps and contaminated shallow wells.  

“We’re 100 percent focused on monsoon right now,” Gigauri said. “Once we make it through to the end of September, the monsoon issue will take a back seat and I think what will rise to the top of the agenda will be host communities, water, and [camp] decongestion as a standing item.”

Devex sat down with Gigauri in Cox’s Bazar to find out how IOM, which leads site management for the response, will address these issues in the coming months.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Having just spent time in the camps, what are you most concerned about right now?

I looked at the extension sites. It’s good that we have some land now that we are working to relocate to — that process is happening, but that land will be filled up very soon. Then we will be asking for more land. We’re grateful to the government that we got the extension land, but it’s not enough in terms of the big picture. For now, it’s enough to meet the most critical needs — meaning the most vulnerable people.

“Once journalists leave, I know we're competing with all the other crisis in the world.”

— George Gigauri, IOM chief of mission in Bangladesh

What really worried me was water. This is a recurring theme because water is the one element that is cross-cutting across all sectors. We looked at some sites where we will be putting in boreholes, that will be the sustainable water supply that we’ll need in the future. Each camp needs a deep borehole that is able to supply for 30,000 people, and that’s possible, but it’s not easy to get the truck with the equipment to the locations.

The camps are still very overcrowded, but what is the solution? Is there still talk of moving 100,000 refugees to an island in the Bay of Bengal?

I would not want to link the issue of decongestion and the question of the island too much. That creates the false narrative that the only way to decongest is the island, so I would like to keep other options open if possible.

Having said that, we have nothing against the island. There's a technical working group that is being set up as we speak. There is no date yet, but it's being fixed very soon, where people will go to inspect the island our approach is “what can we do to help the government?” We want to be proactive, we want to be responsive and helpful.

It is premature to speak about the island because we haven’t even seen it yet. We need to do our homework to see what needs to be put in place before we seriously commit.

I’ve heard reports of tension between the host community and refugees. Rohingya are willing to work for less, and are now more often hired for agricultural labor jobs as a result, for example. How is IOM addressing this?

The host communities is a very big issue for us. We’ve been in Teknaf since 2014, working with the host communities before they were even called host communities. Cash for work is a standard thing that we do, it’s a good short-term intervention.

I would add health as an adjunct to that. The health systems are under a lot of stress right now, so if we can improve the services — and we're already doing that — but if we can find something, an expanded version of that, it would be good.

But in the future for us, when we talk about social cohesion and host communities, it’s all about livelihoods and income generation. It’s about what the local Bangladeshis get out of this. We really want to do something, and we want to be seen doing something in this area because the perception is just as important as the reality.

The perception of the host communities?

Yes, and decision-makers in Dhaka — it’s very important they see that the country is benefitting.

The $950 million 2018 Joint Response Plan is only about a quarter funded. What sort of pressure does that put on your priorities? And is there a sense that this crisis, one year later, is already being forgotten?

It is underfunded, but we are hopeful there are a whole bunch of envelopes in the pipeline. But it’s still going to be underfunded, even with the pledged amounts. There’s only one thing we can do: Focus on the most critical services — site management, site development — we have to run the camps so that system doesn't shut down.

Beyond that, there’s a debate, as you can imagine. I would personally put water on the agenda as the leading item because it is connected to so many other things.

I don’t know if it’s the monsoon, but there’s still plenty of media attention. That’s how I judge whether we are getting into the grey zone of a protracted crisis — how much is it on TV and online? So once journalists leave, I know we're competing with all the other crisis in the world.

I think we're OK for now, but I'm very, very afraid of what will happen once the donor stamina runs out. And the donor stamina tends to run out once the international attention seems to wane.

You were previously IOM chief of mission in Papua New Guinea and have experience in Indonesia as well. Are there certain lessons that you're bringing with you to Bangladesh?

This situation is unique given its scale. I don't think anybody has dealt with that. But there's definitely some parallels that can be drawn in dealing with displaced populations, and one of them is this concept of self-reliance and self-agency.

The more protracted the crisis becomes, the more problematic it is if people are not given the opportunity to actualize themselves.

Populations displaced for a long time, unable to help themselves — that has a whole bunch of effects, from psychosocial to physical and psychosomatic, because it's interlinked. It has individual effects, and it has group effects. So I've seen what that can do to people — and this is something that we need to keep in mind as we move forward.

About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. 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 since reported from more than 20 countries.