Meredith Walsh (back row, fourth from right), CPI Board Chair Dr. Tom Lee (second row, third from left) and CPI Board Member Dr. Adam Richards (second row, second from left) with CPI Bangladesh staff and Community Health Volunteers in Cox's Bazar in June 2019. Photo: Reza Shahriar Rahman for Community Partners International
Meredith Walsh, Community Partners International (CPI)’s Country Director in Bangladesh, reflects on the last 20 months working to support Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar.
I arrived in Bangladesh in early November 2017 to help Community Partners International (CPI) set up operations in Cox’s Bazar. Just over two months earlier, this small sliver of land squeezed between Rakhine State in western Myanmar and the Bay of Bengal, became the world’s largest refugee camp virtually overnight.
The speed and scale of this influx were overwhelming. In the space of a few days in late August 2017, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled violence in Rakhine State. Their journeys to safety were long and perilous - traveling on foot, and avoiding roads for fear of attacks. Pouring across the border, they arrived in Cox’s Bazar exhausted, malnourished, traumatized and sometimes injured. They found places to rest wherever they could – by roadsides, in fields – often with little more than the clothes they wore. They kept coming in the weeks that followed, joining more than 200,000 others who had fled previous outbreaks of violence, and swelling the Rohingya refugee population in Cox’s Bazar to almost one million people. The majority were women, children and the elderly.
Bangladeshi host communities, the Government of Bangladesh and national and international non-governmental organizations mobilized to help in the first days and weeks, as international aid and support began to arrive. The needs were immense – food, clean water, shelter, sanitation, health care, education, protection... The first few weeks were chaotic but gradually systems were established and basic infrastructure began to take shape.
Today, as I look out across the refugee camps, they have become bustling shanty towns, with rickety bamboo and tarpaulin shelters squeezed together on every spare inch of land as far as the eye can see. The camps are now effectively the sixth largest city in Bangladesh. Reinforced dirt roads have been constructed to accommodate trucks and other vehicles. Little businesses have sprung up - market stalls selling vegetables and other necessities, Rohingya entrepreneurs charging cell phones with solar power, barber shops, tailors, and other social enterprises. Floodwalls, drainage ditches, and newly planted trees now provide some protection from flooding and landslides.
The first person I met in Cox’s Bazar was my colleague, a young local with whom I would work closely to open the office and develop local partnerships. Our first “office” was a hotel lobby, where we sat with our computers in our laps. Guided by CPI’s mission to empower people to meet their essential health and development needs, we began to determine how we could best support Rohingya refugees to provide community-based health leadership in the camps.
Thanks to the extraordinary generosity of CPI’s donors, we have gradually built our impact. We have faced many challenges and made much progress in the 20 months since we started work. Among our accomplishments, we have trained and supported a skilled and committed team of 80 Rohingya Community Health Volunteers, helped establish three health clinics, strengthened the emergency response system in the camps, conducted outreach education to help prevent gender-based violence, constructed and maintained water and sanitation facilities, distributed improved cookstoves, and installed household solar lights. In partnership with our Rohingya and Bangladeshi counterparts, we have delivered essential services and support to tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees.
We eventually moved into an office space and recruited a small national staff with expertise to support the development of our health, gender-based violence, water, sanitation and hygiene, and energy programs. We have formed partnerships with Bangladeshi organizations with whom we have common cause to support their role in responding to the refugee crisis, and to facilitate the implementation of our programs.
While the camp infrastructure has developed considerably, many other concerns remain. Despite the presence of many skilled Rohingya people ready and willing to lead local services and represent their communities, the Rohingya voice is still lacking at the decision-making level, both in the camps and in the humanitarian sphere in Cox’s Bazar.
Security risks restrict the movements and opportunities of women and girls, frequently preventing them from accessing work or services. Violence has become a routine threat within the camps. The lack of security means that refugees continue to live in fear, especially at night.
Rohingya women are often reluctant to access services provided by Bangladeshi providers due to cultural differences. Maternal and newborn mortality remains worryingly high and 80% of deliveries still happen at home. The case for home-based care is evident, yet community health volunteers are limited in the skills and training they can receive, the medicines they can distribute in the home, and the equipment they can use.
We also need to do more to support Bangladeshi host communities in Cox’s Bazar to cope with the influx of refugees and its broader impacts. In situations like these, host communities can be overlooked, and yet they are a crucial part of the equation. This crisis has brought many challenges for them as well, and it is vital that this does not fuel resentment towards refugees.
CPI’s focus on empowering Rohingya communities seeks to address some of these concerns. I am deeply inspired by the development of our team of Rohingya Community Health Volunteers. They are truly seen as leaders in their community. I am humbled and honored to work with all of our Rohingya counterparts in the camps and to see their leadership grow.
We will continue advocating for Rohingya-led response through evidence-based and rights-based messaging. The Rohingya are best placed to provide aid to their own community. They are not a helpless population in need of a handout. They are capable and strong women, men, girls and boys who can and should play a central role in leading the solutions to the challenges they face.
Help them lead.