Four flights, 25 hours, and 8,500 kilometres after departing Jersey airport on a cold February morning, I stepped off the plane in the subtropical city of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. All going to plan, the city I will call home for the next two years, for the duration of my role as JPO Programme Officer for UNHCR.
Situated on the coast in the southeast of Bangladesh, Cox’s Bazar is a lively fishing port, and the country’s most popular tourist destination. Most famously known for its long natural sandy beach, a quick Google search reveals images of beautiful stretches of golden sand, seafront hotels, and fish markets bustling with tourists. However, a mere 30 kilometres from the centre of Cox’s Bazar, sits the largest refugee settlement in the world, home to over one million Rohingya refugees forcibly displaced from Myanmar. Most arrived in Bangladesh in 2017, fleeing persecution and human rights violations. Completely dependent on the generous support of the Bangladeshi government and humanitarian agencies for basic needs such as shelter, food, and health services, the Rohingya are one of the largest stateless populations in the world, deprived of their citizenship by the Myanmar government and forced from their homeland, with no route back in sight. Some refugees have endured years of trauma through displacement and targeted violence in Myanmar. Some were born in the camp and have never seen their own country or even ventured outside of the camp walls.
What’s more, the Rohingya live in precarious conditions. When they first fled Myanmar, there was nowhere to go, and the settlements in Cox’s Bazar were established expeditiously to accommodate the hundreds of thousands crossing the border in desperate need of refuge. They are housed in temporary shelters in a highly congested camp setting, and with Bangladesh ranking third in the world among states most hit by natural disasters, Rohingya refugees are highly exposed to weather-related hazards. They face great risks from the upcoming monsoon season, as their shelters are on hillsides, which will turn to mud when the heavy rains arrive.
I’ve been fortunate to visit the refugee camps and meet some of the Rohingya and Bangladeshi national volunteers who selflessly give their time to try and improve the day-to-day lives of the refugees. Visiting the camps is a humbling experience. As you make your way through the bamboo walkways, you are met with a sense of friendliness and welcoming, with people happy to speak and eager to share their experiences. Despite the unfathomable trauma and hardship that the Rohingya refugee population has endured, the refugees’ resilience and drive to fight for an improved way of life is evident.
Life for the local population of Cox’s Bazar is also far from easy. Cox’s Bazar is one of Bangladesh’s poorest and most vulnerable districts, with 33 per cent living below the poverty line, and 17 per cent below the extreme poverty line. UNHCR and its local NGO partners work tirelessly to provide essential services to the refugees, as well as support to the host community, but the scale of the situation means there are many people in desperate need, and it is hard to support them all.
My role at UNHCR sits within the Programme Team. We are the unit that oversees the implementation of service delivery to refugees in the camps, whether that is education services, construction of latrines, community awareness raising on health and hygiene, or ensuring that refugees have access to food and medicine. Perhaps most importantly, the Programme team coordinates with UNHCR’s local NGO partners, who provide the essential local knowledge and expertise to design projects to ensure that refugees have access to the services they need, and that UNHCR’s mandate to provide protection and assistance is achieved.
Becoming familiar with the local NGO teams and the projects they are implementing with UNHCR has been one of my favourite parts of the role so far. Despite the challenging context, innovation is everywhere to be seen. Some such examples include the introduction of the vertical gardening concept, whereby the refugees’ shelter rooftops are turned into vegetable gardens, allowing them to provide nutrition for their family, gain new skills, whilst also helping cool their homes. Also, the training of refugee volunteers to encourage community self-management, whereby the volunteers lead on identifying and responding to multiple issues in the camps, whether it be responding to natural disasters, providing mental health and social support, or teaching in schools.
I can hardly believe that’s it’s been four months since I arrived in Cox’s Bazar. It’s been a rewarding and enjoyable time, with every day bringing a new challenge and experience. Thanks to the generous welcome from my team at UNHCR, I’m feeling very much at home here. I’m also very much looking forward to discovering more of the region. Bangladesh is a beautiful country, marked by lush greenery, mangrove forests, and beautiful coastlines, with an abundance of wildlife, historical monuments, and seemingly endless opportunities to explore!
But most importantly, I am looking forward to building my skills as a Programme Officer, and hopefully doing justice to the amazing opportunity I’ve been given to work for an organisation working on the frontline of displacement, ensuring life-saving services are delivered to those in need.
To find out more about our UN JPO roles, visit our Get Involved page.