Sumbul Rizvi is the senior humanitarian coordinator assigned on behalf of the broader humanitarian community to coordinate the response to the Rohingya refugee crisis in Cox’s Bazar. The interview has been edited for clarity.
The Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya refugee crisis was launched earlier this year, requiring USD 951 million to provide humanitarian aid to the Rohingya refugees and local host communities. What are some of the challenges in implementing this plan?
Well, there are two challenges. One is the policy. There is a significant number of policy decisions that need to occur to make this a sustainable response. For example, reducing available land is not going to help anybody; neither the refugees nor the host communities nor the government of Bangladesh. People need to live with some semblance of basic dignity. In this sense, the vision requires policy shifts including issues of space and so on.
The other challenge is funding. The availability of funding is a constant issue. We are working with a whole range of donors who generously contributed during the early phase of the situation. However, we require more funds. And when I say we, I mean the entire response itself requires more funds.
Whether it is to ensure that some greenery is restored, or that basic facilities are provided to the refugees such as- basic water, sanitation, and shelter. What you see now are just plastic sheets and bamboo that are not sustainable, and are highly risky in a disaster prone area such as Cox’s Bazar.
Traditionally, when people think about humanitarian assistance to refugee camps they focus on the refugees themselves.Why is it important to invest resources both into the refugee camps and the host communities? It is absolutely natural that when we look at the situation of the refugees, we must also alleviate the impact that such a large influx has had on the immediate nearby host communities. This is an innovative way of thinking. Normally, in refugee scenarios, this thinking starts to come forward several years after the refugees have been living in the country – after the damage has already been done. We have learnt our lessons from the past. We don’t need to wait to see that impact. We are already in a country that has a high population density. How can we facilitate social cohesion from the start? It can happen only if we understand the needs and the challenges of the community that is hosting the refugees.
Is there any concern that by focusing on the environmental impacts of the refugee influx, it will worsen their marginalization – by portraying them as the cause of such environmental degradation? I don’t think the assumptions in this question are correct. Focusing on the environmental impact is critical: The refugees know it; the local communities know it; we know it. I see both refugees and local communities being equal partners in environmental
rehabilitation – and the good part is that we are starting now. I’ve been in many, many refugee contexts where it is only later in time that plans to address environmental degradation are initiated. In Cox’s Bazar, this has just happened and it is just the first year of the crisis. We can overcome it. It will take a little time and joint partnerships between us all but we can overcome it. And it will be for the mutual benefit of all. Given the specific traumas the Rohingya refugees faced last year, what does that mean for the way in which development and humanitarian responses are planned at the camps? Well in most refugee situations, you usually see a lot of people
fleeing with some of those having faced direct persecution. In this situation, however, the majority of the people have been subjected to direct persecution themselves or to their immediate families. They have either lost family members or been tortured or horribly subjected to all kinds of abuse and/or have seen their own family members subjected to horrific violence. People are obviously traumatized. In this regard, the camps are meant to be safe spaces.
How can we facilitate social cohesion from the start? It can happen only if we understand the needs and the challenges of the community that is hosting the refugees
A safe space is meant to provide access to support, which includes catharsis measures like the ability to speak to each other, to nurture yourself and the community and to bring yourself back from the brink to a normal life.
Camps are supposed to be spaces where you have safe access to services; especially for those in need. These include
health – psychosocial and physical care, food security, education, nutrition, protection services. We need the child friendly spaces, women friendly spaces, and support for the disabled. We need interactive spaces for the refugee boys and girls themselves. We need to support the refugees as they become the channels of their own.
What efforts have been made to involve the Rohingya refugees in the planning and development of the camps? Until recently, a “Majhi” system has been in place, that had developed when previous Rohingyas had sought refuge in Bangladesh. It was not very democratic. Currently humanitarian actors are working on establishing an alternative – to set up elected committees that represent the diversity of the of the Rohingya community. The objective is to ensure that the community takes charge of their own decision making process. This is what we do in refugee camps around the world, and this is what we are trying to establish here. A successful pilot was undertaken last month. Half of the elected committee were women and there was a range of ages involved. It is quite different from the system that was previously in place, but we can’t dismantle a system in the absence of another one. So the alternative is being created now, a democratic system is being created so that we can actually abolish the previous one. It is a work-in-progress, but certainly refugees have to play a part in the planning and development of the camps and their own lives.
Originally this interview was published on August 17, 2018 at Climate-Tribune (Dhaka Tribune).