The World Food Programme (WFP) of the United Nations has been providing round-the-clock support to help feed the 900,000 Rohingya refugees who have been sheltering in camps inside Bangladesh since being forced from their homeland by the Myanmar military from August 2017.
Christa Rader, former WFP country director in Bangladesh who finished her 8-year tenure with the UN organization's Bangladesh operation in July, tells the Dhaka Tribune's Afrose Jahan Chaity how
How would you explain the scale of the Rohingya crisis?
There are about 900,000 people in the Rohingya camps; it is the largest-growing refugee crisis in the world. Almost one million people are living together in a very small space (so) the humanitarian need is huge. People have to be fed every day and they have to get clean water. In the medium term, they need education (and) they need means to earn some money because we cannot provide them everything they require.
How is WFP providing support in this crisis?
The WFP is providing support from various angles. We provide food assistance, nutrition services, and snacks for school children. We also provide electronic vouchers, with which people can go shopping.
We are also providing assistance to mitigating the effects of the rainy season. We work on the engineering front to strengthen road access, and we store food in case we cannot get into the camps during the rainy season. We also work on stabilizing little tracks in the camp so that people are not cut off in the rainy season.
We also work for Bangladeshi host communities in a number of upazilas of Cox’s Bazar. We are currently working with 20,000 women in Teknaf and Ukhiya upazilas. There are about 100,000 people from Bangladeshi host communities and they are the poorest of the poor. We are helping them to earn a living. We train them on business development and then give them a cash grant for income generating activities, so that in the longer term they can manage themselves.
What are the main challenges?
The challenges are simply to provide food to so many people. We only have three food commodities – rice, pulse and oil – and people do not want to live for months or years on them. So, we have to bring diversification.
We can bring this diversification in the electronic vouchers. These are cards which are uploaded every month and contain about nine dollars - or Tk750 - per person per month, allowing a household to purchase food from shops [where they have more options].
How long will WFP provide support in the Rohingya crisis?
We are there to continue our support as long as it is needed. But the costs are high (and) we depend on the generous donations of donors. We have a cost of $24 million per month for WFP alone and there are many other agencies that provide [us with funding].
Is it sufficient?
We have calculated that for 10 months – from March to December – we need about $243 million. So far, we do not have much. We have $45 million up to now – this is 18%.
I would appeal to the international community to continue being generous as they were from September onwards.
I want to commend the government of Bangladesh and people of Cox’s Bazar for the hospitality and for receiving one million [Rohingya] in need. I would also want to commend the government for very flexible arrangements with the World Food Programme. We could take rice on loan from the government and distribute. And then, when the donor contributions came in, we paid the government back.
What if the donations do not come?
If the donations are not coming through then we will need to ake very hard decisions – who should get and who should not. I hope that we won’t need to make such decisions. At least to the end of the year generous donors contributions are coming through.
If you do not get sufficient funds, then who will get the priority?
The priority will be the children and women, and households headed by women – because men always find some work and for women this is difficult, as it is for the elderly, physically and mentally challenged people. But I still hope that we do not need to take this decision so soon.
What will happen if the donations stop coming in?
I cannot predict what is going to happen. But I would hope that the people, before they starve, are allowed to leave the camps and earn some cash or generate some sort of income in the camps – there is always something people can produce.
And in general, I would think there could be private sector investments – giving these people employment opportunities so that they can earn at least part of their needs. They can also make their savings when they return and they have something to start with.