Increased Communication Still Critical for Rohingya Refugees

August 25 marks one year since Rohingya refugees fled violence in Rakhine state in Myanmar to Bangladesh. One year later, Rohingya refugees live in various camps in Bangladesh. What has changed in terms of communication and accountability within this year?

The Internews Humanitarian Information Service (HIS) project works with eighteen Rohingya community correspondents to capture rumours and community feedback and turn them into an audio programme for Rohingya refugees; a newsletter on community feedback (in partnership with BBC Media Action and TWB); and a bulletin to help field staff respond to rumours (in partnership with the Internews Human Rights Support Mechanism project).

“Right after we arrived we didn’t know anything about services, for instance how World Food Programme distributes food. We didn’t know that we could get free medicine. Many of us bought a lot medicine right after we arrived because we didn’t know it was free.” — (Md. Yousuf)

All of our Rohingya correspondents agreed that when the new influx of refugees arrived, they entered an information void that was at times quite scary to them. Most of them shared that it took them two or three days to find out anything about humanitarian services and some said that humanitarian agencies only answered their questions when refugees came together in crowds and demanded more information.

“Our suffering would have been less if Internews would have been here earlier, because then we would have had information,” said one correspondent. “Because we covered some really crucial topics [through our narrowcast]. If we could’ve done that earlier and for all the camps it would be much easier for people […].”

But in the first days it was, as in so many responses, not humanitarian agencies that filled the gap.

“Not only the registered refugees but also the host community helped us. They cooked a big bowl of rice for us. Otherwise, we would have starved. We hadn’t eaten for two days and after that we were so happy and very grateful.” — (Md. Ousman)

The correspondents stress that some of the key support in the first few days after they arrived came from registered Rohingya refugees that had already lived in Bangladesh since 1991 or 2012 and the host community. The gratitude to this support is something that not only our correspondent but also many of the other Rohingya community members have expressed.

Women stand outside the door to a shelter
Women in one of the refugee camps crowd into a shelter to listen to Internews’ Bala-Bura narrowcast. Credit Internews

Now, one year has passed and some things have changed. There are latrines, shelter and many humanitarian agencies. The initial emergency phase is over. But how much has the communication landscape changed in the camps?

The correspondents agree that there is more information available in the camps, agencies are now providing more information than in those first days and months. However, they also feel that agencies should communicate with them directly. As one of the community correspondents said, “…we received fewer shelter kits than people in other camps. It depends on the Majhi (traditional leader). If Majhis are corrupted we don’t get shelter kits, so NGOs should contact us directly, not through the Majhis.”

The increasing interest of humanitarians to communicate is also reflected in a recent report by Internews, which showed that 93% of responding humanitarian agencies collect community feedback. However, the report also showed that agencies still lack formalised systems to refer and respond to that feedback. This often means that there are still many open questions for the Rohingya community.

“Now I realise, we might need to be here for a long time. If so, what is the permanent solution for our children. We want good schools where our children can get continuous and good education. Once we were here, we thought we’d be here for a short time. But now we’ve been here one year, and some shelters are already broken. So, we want to know how we can get access to better and more permanent shelter. I’m indifferent about going back to Myanmar or staying here, but I want a solution for education and shelter.” (Jamila)

In particular, regarding questions about the future of refugees there is a big demand for more communication and information amongst refugees. A major concern is education for children and youth – something that does not just come up within the community correspondents team but also shows up in the feedback from the wider community.

“The organisations do not ask any opinions from the community, because they just play the role of giving food to the community […] food and other items.” (Md. Yasin)

Another weak point is accountability in terms of including the Rohingya community in decision-making. While some agencies give information, this often happens only after a decision has been made. Within the community data analysed by Internews, this has become particularly relevant in connection to the recently signed Memorandum of Understanding and returns and varying other aspects of rights: “NGOs talk about lots of things but not our rights” (Zia).

For some community members including our community correspondents these questions are more important than knowing about services. As one of our youngest correspondents Samim puts it, “I just have two questions: when will we go home? And when will we get our rights?”

While there are humanitarians who have increased their communication efforts compared to one year ago, more transparency and participation are clearly needed and demanded.

As Md. Yakoub, one of the correspondents, puts it: “When we first arrived we didn’t know about anything. But for example, now we know about food distribution, how many people get what and so on. But this can still be improved, because not everybody has access to that information. And it would be good if they would involve us in some of these decisions; that would be better for the community.”

Viviane Fluck is Internews’ Humanitarian Project Lead for the Rohingya program in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. Internews implements two projects in Cox’s Bazar: the HIS (Humanitarian Information Service), which is part of a consortium with BBC Media Action and Translators Without Borders and funded through ECHO and DfID and the HRSM (Human Rights Support Mechanism) funded by  USAID.

(Banner image: Internews’ Bala-Bura narrowcast usually draws a crowd as there is still not enough information in the Rohingya language. Credit Internews)