An exclusive interview of Giorgi Gigauri, chief of mission of the International Organization for Migration (IOM)
Giorgi Gigauri, chief of mission of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) – the United Nation's migration agency in Bangladesh – shares his insights on the Rohingya crisis with Raihana Sayeeda Kamal from The Business Standard.
What is your view on the government's decision to relocate the Rohingyas to Bhasan Char?
This is not a very new subject. The government has been planning the relocation for a long time. We always want to be solution-oriented and supportive. We work with the government and have a number of assessments underway. There are issues like sustainability, safety, security, infrastructure and protection-related details. Before receiving the findings, I cannot say much.
Just one thing, relocation does not mean just getting the island ready. It means getting the people ready to relocate.
So, you mean to say they are not ready to go?
We do not exactly know yet how many of them are ready and how many are not ready. But it has to be voluntary relocation. They have not been to the island, maybe, some of them have heard about it or seen videos. But they have to understand which services will be available, how they will be moved there, and who will move there with them. Right? You cannot just move one member of a family. Please remember that this is not an evacuation, it has to be done in the right way.
As there is a threat of diminishing funds, how long do you think the NGOs will be able to aid the Rohingyas?
If you look at other crises in the world, as time goes by, the funding does decrease because international attention tends to decrease over time. However, this crisis has been well funded so far. Compared to other crises, funding for this emergency has been stable in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Almost 70 percent of the requested funding under the Joint Response Plan has been provided, which is very good compared to other such appeals. […] Right now it is ok, the donors have been very generous, and I am optimistic that the funding will continue at the required level in the near future. So, fingers crossed.
Twenty-five to 30 percent of the funding was supposed to be given to the local people. What is IOM doing for the host community?
If you look at the other crises around the world, the main focus – at the beginning – is the displaced community, because you are focusing on life-saving and life-sustaining activities first, right? Then you begin to stabilize the situation – depending on the scale of the emergency and available resources of course – and then you start focusing on the host community.
This year, there will be more support for the local people as it is clearly necessary. The host community has been impacted and we have to make sure that this impact is mitigated. I do not just mean creating income generation opportunities for the host community, but we have to ensure there is peace and harmony between the two communities as well as existent mechanisms to resolve possible disputes.
In the previous two years, the focus was on the displaced community. The current joint response plan for 2020 will pay a lot more attention to the needs of the host community.
What are in your plans for the host community?
A range of activities. The focus would be, of course, on livelihoods, strengthening health systems, quick impact projects, infrastructure, finding ways to put cash in their pockets, and investing in more sustainable and longer-term development. The government has some community development plans. So, we want to make sure the funding is supported.
There will be some focus on micro and macro level infrastructure. Then social schemes, health system support, is very important. We have to make sure not just health facilities but also health systems and services are available for the local Bangladeshis. Some health service centres are already serving both Rohingya and local communities. So, we want to improve on and expand that.
Then in the longer term, we will focus on the development of Cox's Bazar and improve linkages to the markets. Also, let us not forget about social protection – protecting the most vulnerable and ultra-poor is paramount. Basically, prioritizing and targeting those who need help the most. Likewise, always keep an eye on social cohesion and ensuring peaceful coexistence, because you cannot have development without peace.
We are very conscious of this and we have a number of programmes contributing to social cohesion. The distribution of propane gas is one important element, while others include environmental rehabilitation, support to fisheries in Teknaf, agricultural support, creating jobs for the host community, as well as refurbishing cyclone shelters, and reducing exposure to disasters.
What is IOM doing for the Rohingyas?
We have a diverse humanitarian portfolio – we provide support in shelter, site management, protection – including child protection – with a special focus on the victims of trafficking. We provide support in water, sanitation, hygiene and waste management. We work on health, which is a large component of our work. We also make sure we are listening to the needs of the refugees and have an effective feedback mechanism in place. Now we will be focusing much more on the host community's needs.
There are IGOs, NGOs, different government ministries, different security agencies. Do you think these create any problems of coordination?
Coordination is always a challenge, especially in a response of this scale. We have the United Nations (UN), international organizations, and over a hundred NGOs operating in Cox's Bazar – that is literally thousands of aid workers. In the beginning it is always more chaotic but as time goes by, and things settle a bit, coordination tends to improve. While there is always room for improvement, right now the agencies in Cox's Bazar are cooperating effectively.
Then there is coordination with the government, which I would say now is also efficient. Let us remember that the government leads the response and administration of the camps and we are in a constant dialogue with various local authorities, to ensure effective delivery. It is a complex emergency with many moving parts and a rapidly changing environment, so we have to keep up and adjust to make sure we continue to be fit-for-purpose.
In Cox's Bazar we have relatively good access to beneficiaries, relatively safe working conditions and a good relationship with the local community, which is very important.
And the co-ordination with local NGOs and local people?
I would like to touch on a process called localization. We are working to build the capacity of local NGOs and channel more funding to them. We want more locals from Cox's Bazar employed – and the same goes for our procurement and investments. When we buy bamboo for shelters, we buy Bangladeshi bamboo, when we buy different products for our activities we buy as much as we can from the local markets, so almost all the money coming in benefits the local economy. When we invest we try to go as local as possible.
How many of IOM's staff members are local hires?
I am quite proud to say that 90 percent of the IOM staff is local – the majority of whom are from Cox's Bazar. We invest in them, we train them, we empower them, and we promote them – with a special focus on women. So, in future, I want to see more Bangladeshis in key managerial positions and we are already working on making this a reality.
What are the chances the Rohingya will be repatriated soon?
When you talk about the chances of a quick repatriation, we need to be very clear what we mean by that. Let us not forget, this is the third time in the last forty years that they have been displaced, so it is in everyone's interest to make sure that their return is not only timely but also: sustainable, voluntary, safe, and dignified. How do we achieve that? By addressing the root causes of their displacement and, of course, by listening to the Rohingyas.
And what do the Rohingyas want? They all want to go back home. Let us be very clear – they do not want to stay in Cox's Bazar.
But they do have some requests – basic safety, access to citizenship, freedom of movement. Can you blame them for wanting this? Of course not. Each one of us would ask for the same minimal conditions.
Our job is to make sure they return. It may be difficult but there is only one solution to this crisis – all of them have to return to their homes. This is what they want and this is what international law demands.
This is not just about Bangladesh and Myanmar, this has much wider ramifications.
The situation in Myanmar is very complex. As my United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) colleague says, "We have to be strategically patient but never complacent." We will continue working
but there can be only one outcome – their repatriation. A long answer to a simple question but perhaps it is not so simple.
What are your responses to drug smuggling, human trafficking and crime occurring inside the camps?
We are working very closely with the police, border guards and army to address these problems. There are valid concerns – with some criminal elements operating in the area – and it is also the responsibility of the international community to support the local law enforcement in their efforts.
A big part of protection work is on combating human trafficking, where we work in-and-outside the camps to prevent exploitation and raise awareness about the dangers of trafficking, provide protection to the victims and assist the government in prosecuting the perpetrators. We are also ramping up our activities focused on social cohesion and ensuring peaceful coexistence between the Rohingya and local communities in Ukhiya and Teknaf.
Do you find there have been changes in the situation from 2017 to 2019?
Of course, there are many positive changes. Firstly, the situation is more stable now. We do not want to create the impression that everything is perfect, definitely not, but if you compare the camps in September 2017 and now, you will see two different worlds.
I do not just mean the improved infrastructure, rehabilitated environment, and lit streets, but also the expression on the faces of Rohingyas, who are very resilient.
If you go to the camps, you will see people working, children learning, youths playing football. Again, there are plenty of problems but there is a clear evidence of resilience and the will to go on.
You will also see more being done for the host community – roads, bridges, jobs, stores, etc., all created for them. It is important that these efforts get the recognition they deserve. Thousands of locals are directly or indirectly employed by aid agencies, and this matters.
In terms of negative developments, it is true that when you have a massive displaced population it is always a breeding ground for exploitation. As time goes by, you will get criminal elements trying to capitalise on this by taking advantage of vulnerable and desperate individuals. I am afraid Cox's Bazar is no exception and behooves us all to be vigilant and support the government in eradicating these efforts.
It also important to mention the changing public perception of Rohingyas, which I am afraid has been worsening over time. There are a lot of rumours and there is inaccurate information – including hate speech – being spread, which is having a detrimental effect. We all have to do more to communicate better with the public on the progress that has been achieved over the past 2.5 years.
Does media have a role in changing the outlook?
Media is already playing a very important role and they will be playing an even more significant role as time goes by. Negative news tends to garner more attention and get more interest, that is just the nature of the news cycle, but let us not forget about the positive developments too. There is disproportionally small attention being paid to the successes in Cox's Bazar, especially for the host community.
Social media can be a particularly pernicious tool for propagating hate speech and "fake news," as we have witnessed many times. Unverified information is often posted and goes viral before anyone has had the chance to discredit it; by the time a clarification is issued it is already too late and the damage has been done.
We count on the media to counter some of these waves of misinformation to make sure the people have access to full and reliable coverage of the events in Cox's Bazar.