[INTERVIEW] ‘Illusion of stability’ hides truth about Rohingya camp

Giorgi Gigauri speaks with The Korea Times at IOM Korea’s office in Jung-gu, Seoul, on Feb. 26. Courtesy of IOM Korea

IOM Bangladesh’s Giorgi Gigauri reveals the reality of the Rohingya camp at Cox’s Bazar and why he visited Seoul

By Ko Dong-hwan

When the International Organization for Migration head of the mega-scale refugee camp for Rohingya people at Cox’s Bazar visited Seoul late February, he wanted the Korean government and local donors to the agency to understand a truth undermined by many ― that people confuse the reality with “illusion of stability” when seeing the camp.

Outsiders, after seeing no bodies lying around the streets and not hearing any shots, think life at the makeshift village of Bangladesh housing 925,700 Rohingyas goes on normally. But the Georgian Chief of Mission says the impression is a mirage, highlighting the fragility at the camp, which now holds sixth-largest community in Bangladesh.

The Bangladesh-Myanmar border is open to continued violence, protesters at Cox’s Bazar are demanding better work opportunities for local residents, and masses of refugee youths, without much to keep them busy, roam streets inside the camp and often run into trouble.

The most anticipated fear factor is a monsoon season that begins in March.

“Continued rainfall can cause landslides in the congested habitat, likely resulting in injuries and fatalities,” Gigauri told The Korea Times, calling the situation an “emergency within an emergency.” He recalled that last year his IOM team managed to relocate 30,000 refugees to safer zones ahead of the monsoon rains.

“Those at the bottom of hills are safest whereas those at the top are in the most danger because all the trees have been cut down, making the slopes unstable,” he said. “With just enough water and wind, the hills lose stability and the shelters slide down.”

Giorgi Gigauri is IOM Bangladesh’s Chief of Mission managing the Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Courtesy of IOM Korea

Arriving in Seoul to raise awareness of the camp and its inhabitants who fled from the violence in Myanmar, Gigauri met a secretary-level official from Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Aside from briefing the official about the camp and requesting continued support from the government, he said he appreciated the government’s support in 2017 and 2018 during at critical times. Korean support allowed the UN Migration Agency to establish a deep tube wall, latrines and to distribute dignity kits for gender-based violence survivors, according to project officer Chae Suk-hee from IOM Bangladesh’s transition and recovery division.

“I want the Korean government and academia and private sectors like KT to be aware of their priorities regarding the Joint Response Plan that was launched February in Geneva,” said Gigauri, referring to the Korean telecommunication giant that has been providing technological support to Moheshkhali island in Cox’s Bazar. JRP is IOM’s latest humanitarian plan for Rohingya refugees that calls for the refugees’ safety, continued humanitarian support and social cohesion between refugees and hosting communities.

IOM Bangladesh will run the camp until the refugees decide to go back to Myanmar. There is no set timeline. Until the exodus happens ― that is, after political decisions are made by Myanmar and Bangladesh governments and the refugees feel safe to return home― Gigauri and his humanitarian crew “have no choice but to continue help them,” according to the chief.

“The Bangladesh government is committed to helping the refugees,” said Gigauri. “But they also want them to leave as soon as possible. With very limited resources, the government has spent lots of its own money and provided people to help.”

The refugees’ arrival in Bangladesh in 2017 was the third and largest-ever exodus of Rohingyas to Cox’s Bazar since 1978, involving more than 712,700 people. The Bangladesh economy was disrupted, its forest and ecosystem devastated. The cost of labor and commodities was affected.

When the IOM builds shelters for Rohingya refugees or improves infrastructure inside the camp, Giorgi Gigauri brings refugees to the sites so they can help with the work. Courtesy of IOM Korea


The camp, sitting on about 1,500 hectares of stripped forestland, is divided into 34 subsections and the IOM directly manages 18 of them, which house some 460,000 refugees. The others are monitored by other humanitarian agencies like the UN Refugee Agency, World Food Program or UNICEF. Administration of the camp involving law enforcement is controlled by the refugee repatriation relief commissioner from the Bangladesh government’s Ministry of Disaster Management.

One of the hardest challenges in the camp is keeping the refugees safe. It is difficult when all humanitarian workers must leave the camp at 6 p.m. Between the evening and following morning, the workers do not know what is happening inside the camp. Gigauri suspects there is much violence and sometimes killings during those blind hours. It is difficult for police and soldiers inside the camp to monitor about 1 million residents after dark.

“If you read Cox’s Bazar newspapers, crimes inside the camp are documented all the time,” Gigauri said. “During the daytime the situation is under control of thousands of humanitarian workers and police.”

The IOM does not have capacity for law enforcement, but can support doing so. In February, the agency opened a police station in the camp, one of two built in addition to three being erected. An ongoing World Bank project provides lighting for the vaster camp region. So far, there have only been lights inside on main roads and in households with solar panels.

On his recent Seoul visit, Gigauri met officials from KT’s sustainable management division to discuss improving safety and health in the Cox’s Bazar region. He was betting on the firm’s ongoing “public private partnership project” titled Digital Island Moheshkhali ― a bid to improve and deliver public services to hard-to-reach areas using KT technologies. Chae said the meeting also discussed adding tribes on Chittagong Hill Tracts to the project’s support list.

“The Bangladesh government was willing to continue its support for enhancing infrastructure, providing inter-ministerial coordination support and localizing online school program through the project,” said Chae.

Rohingya children are seen at a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Mar. 7, 2019. Reuters-Yonhap

Another challenge at the camp is caring the refugees’ health, pathologically and psychologically. Gigauri said 23 clinics are “overstretched” with workers under “incredible” stress to tend to queues of patients, 80 percent of whom are women and children under 18. He said that with dozens of children being born in unhygienic conditions every day, the facilities need continuous supplies of medication and vaccinations, with little funding, expertise, staff or infrastructure.

Host communities also used the hospitals in peripheries of the camp, adding still more pressure.

And that is when there is no outbreak of contagious disease. In January a chicken pox outbreak caused additional stress.

“Remember, this is a primary health care facility for antenatal and postnatal care,” Gigauri said. “If you need any surgery done, you must drive seven hours to Chittagong hospitals. Those hospitals also need assistance because they treat Bangladeshis and another million Rohingya refugees.”

IOM monitors refugees’ mental health largely through a community-based approach. Vulnerable people find relief through art therapy, sports and, for women, group cooking called “common kitchen.” Instead of building shelters or roads, Gigauri teaches the refugees to build shelters for themselves and carry bricks. This keeps the people active and involved.

“If the refugees don’t have many things to do, their mindsets become completely aid-dependent,” said Gigauri, who wants to empower the people and give them a voice. “We are working with the Bangladesh government so the Rohingyas can be part of camp governance committees, part of aid distribution decision making, and have elected representatives.”

Hundreds of Rohingya refugees shout slogans as they protest against their repatriation at the Unchiprang camp in Teknaf, Bangladesh, Nov. 15, 2018. Reuters-Yonhap


Having served as chief of mission in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, Gigauri says Cox’s Bazar camp is different from his previous posts. First of all, the size ― with 1.2 million Rohingyas and Bangladeshis in need ― is unprecedented for refugee settlement anywhere. Standing on a hill, as far as eyes can see there are shelters on top of shelters. He sees it “tragic.”

But Gigauri sees some positive sides, too ― the breadth of national governments, global and local humanitarian organizations, donors and media platforms altogether have been paying consistent attention to the camp for the past 18 months. Twenty thousand people ― from volunteers to nurses, assistants and drivers ― are on the ground supporting the refugees.

“You feel the sense of camaraderie and now we are just a big family,” Gigauri said. “In many crises, attention is quite short. Here, it has been consistent. Every week there is a VIP delegation coming, including goodwill ambassadors, foreign affair ministers, heads of states, journalists and filmmakers.”

A large Korean delegation from KOICA, the country’s international humanitarian aid supplier, and the Korean branch of international humanitarian agency Join Together Society visited the camp in January. KOICA President Lee Mi-kyung, actor Jo In-sung, Ven. Pomnyun, and popular TV drama screenwriter Noh Hee-kyung were at Camp 11 LPG depot to hand over 100,000 stoves to the World Food Program and IOM. Following the delegation, Hollywood actress and UNHCR special envoy Angelina Jolie visited the camp.

“Culture has so much more influence than any situation report or documentary,” Gigauri said, referring to the visitors from outside. He suggested a candidate to be the camp’s goodwill ambassador, but would not reveal the person’s identity.

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