Rohingya crisis: together we have achieved a lot but more needs to be done

How the Food Security Sector is helping Rohingya refugees and local communities as the monsoon season looms

On 16 March 2018, humanitarian agencies launched a joint appeal for US$951 million to assist 1.3 million people including 884,000 Rohingya refugees and 336,000 Bangladeshi living in the most affected host communities until the end of 2018. Activities related to food security account for 25 percent of the requested funding.

Davide Rossi, Coordinator of the Food Security Sector — the inter-agency cluster co-led by the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) — in Cox’s Bazar, has been coordinating the response of organizations implementing food security programmes since October 2017.

Davide Rossi visits partner ACF in Kutupalong extension to discuss plans to expand their wet kitchens in the upcoming monsoon and cyclone season. Photo: WFP/Shelley Thakral

The period covered by the appeal is likely to see an increased potential for natural disasters due to the monsoon season. How is the Food Sector planning to mitigate and respond to this?

My responsibility is to develop a plan with those FSS members that have the capacity to respond, and advocate for more resources if needed. The contingency plan will respond to the potential disasters that could be triggered by the heavy rains or if a cyclone happens. The problem with the monsoon is that it’s not time-limited like an earthquake or a cyclone, but it stretches over seven or eight months. This will make it difficult to reach the camps and communities. Every year the monsoon causes floods and landslides, but this year in Cox’s Bazar district we have less tree coverage, deforestation and a congested and crowded mega camp where refugees are already extremely vulnerable, especially in terms of food security. To better tailor our response, we are drawing from the experience of Food Security Cluster colleagues based in Dhaka and our Rome-based Global Cluster team supports us by sharing policies, documents and recommendations from similar crises around the world.

The upcoming monsoon and cyclone season could spell disaster for people living in the crowded camps. Photo: WFP/Saikat Mojumder

Our main goal is to bring together organizations that can respond quickly. For example, fortified biscuits and cooked meals are a key and immediate life-saving response when people are forcibly displaced, as can be the case when landslides and floods occur. So we need to find out which organizations can provide these, what their capacity is, how much funding they have and, if that is not enough, advocate for more. Then, depending on the situation, we develop a response plan. During the first 24–72 hours, we would provide cooked food and/or fortified biscuits, and then, gradually, we would go back to the general distribution of dry food items such as rice and pulses.

Other key activities include understanding how people reach food distribution points and how to overcome the issues they may face getting there; making all the structures more waterproof and stable; and storing food stocks in critical and strategic points within and near camps.

The monsoon season is going to affect refugees and host communities alike. Local communities have been put under increased pressure with the massive influx of refugees. How do you manage possible tensions between them and new arrivals from Myanmar?

This is a critical part of our work and it is going to increase in the course of 2018. In the initial months of the response, the focus was obviously on the Rohingya community and life-saving interventions. But before their arrival, there were already several initiatives in support of local people, including livelihoods programmes, income generating activities, school feeding and agriculture support programmes. Agriculture itself can be a life-saving activity and supporting it will help both locals and refugees.

What does the livelihoods programme look like in practice?

For the host communities it means mainly agricultural support, which includes both crop production and livestock. This can mean distributing seeds, tools and /or small animals, or rehabilitating key infrastructure, such as irrigation systems, fishing services and so on. The support can also take the form of cash transfers, help with business plan development and other income generating activities. The idea is that if you support the local community to increase their food production and enable marginalized farmers to sell their products on the market, this will benefit both the local villagers and refugees. The so-called ‘food system’ in this area is weak and needs to be strengthened.

It seems that assistance and livelihood programmes rely quite heavily on cash transfers. How do you overcome the fact that it’s difficult for refugees to get cash?

Our role as the Food Security Sector is to find the best way to serve those in need in the most dignified and cost-effective way .Cash is one of the main tools we use. People prefer it because it gives them choice and restores their dignity. But it is not always possible to use it and we have to consider the impact it can have on the local economy, prices and markets.

At present, it is still very difficult to use cash with refugees, but some organizations use cash ‘incentives’ to reward the labour that volunteers and workers do in the camps. WFP is making extensive use of electronic vouchers, allowing more than 25,000 families to buy food of their choice.

WFP’s e-card allows people to diversify their diets by buying fresh foods of their choice. Photo: WFP/Saikat Mojumder

Seven months into the refugee crisis, what have been the successes of the Food Security Sector?

At the very beginning — as it often happens with a crisis of this scale — there were many actors delivering food assistance on the ground, including UN agencies, NGOs, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and local charities. One of our major achievements was to put in place a coordination system to ensure all refugees received food assistance. WFP built various distribution points in the camps and FSS members who had food stocks joined these, complementing WFP food assistance with other food items, such as salt and sugar.

The Food Security Sector team ensures coordination among organizations delivering food assistance in Cox’s Bazaar. Photo: WFP/Kauser Haider

Also very important was the REVA — the Refugee Influx Vulnerability Assessment which was the result of excellent collaboration between the Vulnerability Assessment Monitoring (VAM) unit of WFP and the Food Security Sector. We involved six NGOs partners — both national and international — and interviewed more than 2,000 families in October 2017. The outcomes were very well received: when more partners are involved in the operation, coordination may be more complex but the impact is more effective.

Another success story is the relationship that we built with the Government of Bangladesh, and especially with the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC). The Bangladeshi Government has concerns about food security and making sure we can reach those most in need without gaps. The fact that they trust us, and that we have ongoing dialogue and joint planning with them, has been key.

The experience of responding to floods and natural disasters in Bangladesh is informing plans to face the threats posed by the monsoon season for the Rohingya refugees. Photo: WFP/Matiar Rahman

Despite the progress, more support is needed…

We still have a long way to go. The organizations working to ensure the food security of Rohingya refugees and local communities need money to continue the existing operations and face possible new emergencies. We need resources to avoid the loss of new lives in the cyclone and monsoon season. And we need resources to create jobs and support livelihood projects in the host communities, while at the same time promoting activities to protect the environment which is under increased strain due to mass deforestation.

We will continue to do our best to improve the quality of life for the Bangladeshi host community, who have been the first responders in this crisis, and for the Rohingya refugees who have experienced inconceivable violence and human rights violations.

Learn more about WFP’s response to the Rohingya emergency.