Tuesday, 21 August 2018
The Cox's Bazar region on the border of Bangladesh and Myanmar has become the temporary home for more than 900,000 Rohingya people who have been fleeing violence in Myanmar. The latest influx of refugees came after recent violent episodes. About 700,000 people crossed the border in a remarkably short period of time. An unprecedented refugee crisis was caused by people, without any kind of support or resources, running for their lives across the border to join more than 200,000 people who are already living in very poor conditions in that part of the world.
At the time of this crisis, the international response was swift. One of the key issues that was identified at the time was that this was going to be a gender focused crisis, because the majority of the population who were fleeing the violence were women and children. Fifty-two per cent were women and girls. Fifty-five per cent of the people who are now living in this part of the world as refugees are kids under 18.
This is also an issue because Cox's Bazar is a particularly disadvantaged part of the Bangladeshi community, so both the new arrivals and the people living there are faced with particularly harsh conditions. They are facing significant needs that have not yet been adequately addressed, such as the need for cooking fuel and shortages of firewood, which has created its own problem because it's created deforestation in the area, health risks, higher prices in markets, water shortages and protection needs.
When we had opportunity to visit the area we were very pleased to see that from the very start it was considered that there had to be an understanding of gender in the way that humanitarian resources would be spent and in the interaction with communities. This latest crisis has been happening since late 2017, but recently a group of NGOs collaborated to do a survey, talking with people who were caught up in the process, to do a gender analysis of what is happening in the region at this time. The intent was to understand the different risks and vulnerabilities, but also opportunities and skills, for women, men, boys and girls in the Rohingya and host communities. It was led by Oxfam in partnership with Action Against Hunger and Save the Children, and produced with analysis, comments and recommendations from CARE, the UNHCR, the Inter Sector Coordination Group and UN Women. All these groups are working to identify exactly what is happening in the camps and to talk with the people affected. This is particularly important because so very often these voices are not heard. They are in crisis, they are in need, there are actual social conditions which we cannot understand, but people are often spoken about rather than listened to. The focus of this evidence was to ensure that the voices of the people were heard in looking at exactly what was happening on the ground now.
There are mixed messages in what we have found. There is consideration that the injection of funds from around the world, because there has been amazing generosity from different organisations—our own government has given over $70 million for specific humanitarian aid, so resources have been poured into the region. Living conditions in the refugee camps and makeshift, spontaneous settlements in Cox's Bazar continue to be poor, but nonetheless there is a dedication to ensure that people understand what is going on and that conditions are as safe and as strong as possible to support their needs. We have to take into account the effect it has had on the host community. This has often been overlooked in the consideration and discussions of what is happening. We also have to be very clear that we cannot have a situation where there is growing resentment between the host communities already living in quite disadvantaged conditions and this almost unbelievably large number of people who have arrived in their neighbourhood and are sharing in very crowded conditions without effective resources.
We need to identify the key issues, work together and ensure we have a plan into the future—remembering that we are now facing very serious monsoon conditions, which all the work that has been done to build up the infrastructure to allow large numbers of people to be co-located in a small area has now been affected by. Luckily they haven't been as strong as we thought, but incredibly heavy rains are going through, making the conditions even worse.
We should look at a number of key issues which came out of this particular survey, so that we can focus our efforts, because they will need to be ongoing. We must focus this in the best possible way to ensure the needs are identified and supported. Security is a No. 1 key concern for women and girls in both the host communities and the refugee camps. One of the key issues was that people didn't really have the same understanding of the whole concept of safety. It is important to note the observation by the people involved in the survey that the concept of safety wasn't sufficiently understood. There must be research to understand the differences between the way the term 'safety' is used by humanitarian agencies and the way it is translated and used in communities. More research and more understanding has to be invested in this process because, remember, many of the people with whom we are dealing have had very disadvantaged lives. They come from conservative communities, extraordinarily conservative communities, where women and girls are not given the same support and the same understanding that we have in our societies. They are already working within conservative communities where women are not treated with respect, or often do not have the values that we expect to be able to discuss openly. So, when we talk about the safety of women and girls, it's not immediately understood by their own communities, let alone by the people who are the leaders in those groups. That was identified very early in the process and continues to be a major issue.
However, very practical aspects of security were identified by people who were living in these conditions. One of the more innovative processes has been the use of solar lighting, which has now been used, particularly by Oxfam, in a number of places where there are humanitarian crises. It has proven to be particularly effective because these areas are very dark. Women and girls are often not secure or do not feel it is safe to go out in the daytime, so they go out at night, which creates special dangers. This is where the solar lighting has been used, and it has been identified in the survey as an area where we can continue to work and apply more resources.
We understand, also, that issues of violence, such as early marriage, polygamy and domestic violence threaten female refugees and also women in the host communities. This is an area where we need to work with the women themselves to build up their understanding of their rights and the support networks that are available. In this way we can build knowledge and understanding of respect, and also the fact that there need not be violence. Again, this is giving us the opportunity to focus our aid programs in the future to where they can best be effective and to where we can work with the women themselves.
Oxfam has a fabulous program going within the camps where women who have been identified as leaders in their own right work to build up women's networks in the camps themselves so that, again, communication and the sharing of information can be strengthened and we can work into the future.
The issues concerning latrines and wash areas were identified all the way through the survey. This is where we can use the knowledge that different agencies have to best support more construction, and also separate facilities so women and men can feel safe as they have to work through the very serious issues of lack of water and lack of facilities.
We need to ensure that the aid organisations that have dedicated so much effort and expertise in this area have access to the results of this survey. I know that the Australian government is looking at future aid in this area. We can make sure that they work with the people on the ground and understand the particular issues so that we can develop projects that engage with both the host community in Bangladesh and the refugees, who are living in horrific conditions. We have the opportunity to work with them and to improve the support we provide.