Why we must work with refugees from Myanmar on mid-term shelter in the Bangladesh refugee camps

by 29th Aug 2018
Refugee camp, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, inhabited mainly by refugees from Myanmar. Refugee camp, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, inhabited mainly by refugees from Myanmar.

I’ve just returned from Bangladesh where I’ve been working with CARE’s shelter team to build ‘mid-term shelters’ for refugees who have fled from Myanmar. With the camps now in place for a year, what are the challenges of shifting from short-term emergency response to longer-term support – and how can we make sure that families and communities are at the centre of the process?

One day during my visit, as we summited a small hill I was afforded a rare glance out to the horizon. The densely packed refugee camp, whose narrow pathways we had just snaked our way through, suddenly stretched out before us – becoming a turbulent sea of bamboo and tarpaulin that reached as far as the eye could see, meeting that same horizon.

Later that day I would realise I had been looking out over just three camps (around 100,000 people) of the 30+ camps (approx. 1 million people) that are currently being managed.

Keeping sight of individual needs within a large-scale crisis

The scale and density of the camps continues to present a myriad of challenges for actors like CARE providing vital humanitarian support to the refugees.

The complex context has necessitated coordination between actors on a grand scale: leadership from government to manage and direct a situation with no easy solutions, logistical needs that have stretched local supply chains to breaking point, and a political context that continues to cast a cloud of uncertainty over everything, to name just a few of the challenges.

Most of all, the scale brings with it the risk that in responding we lose sight of individuals and  families – the mothers, the fathers, the elders, the children – many of whom escaped an unimaginable trauma and now survive in this new and unfamiliar environment one day at a time.

Multiple priorities for a long-term response

As the situation has moved from a short-term emergency to a longer-term holding pattern, humanitarian actors have been looking at how we can improve the situation on the ground for families. Despite the huge amount of work already accomplished by so many different actors there is still so much to be done:

  • improving access to food, fuel and medicine;
  • expanding and upgrading access pathways;
  • building drainage, slope protection and other vital infrastructure;
  • decongesting the dense camps;
  • reducing vulnerabilities to fire, wind and rain;
  • dealing with protection issues;
  • preparing for and responding to the monsoon season.

These are just some of the urgent priorities that have kept the staff of CARE and many other organisations awake at night.

Progress does not come easily

For CARE’s shelter response team ‘looking forward’ has taken on the form of mid-term shelters – a sector-led initiative to bring in a new wave of better designed, stronger, safer and more durable structures for families to live in.

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Above: Design for new mid-term shelters

However, being part of this project I experienced first-hand how progress did not come easily. By orchestrating a new phase of construction we invited a whole new set of challenges.

The concrete pillars that strengthen houses against the very real threat of high winds and cyclones required new quality-controlled prefabrication arrangements; neighbourhoods had to be rethought and redesigned to reduce density and its associated risks; other sectors needed to be engaged to ensure an integrated approach to site planning and access to services.

Putting communities at the heart of the response

For CARE, this challenge has also been seized as an opportunity to better involve the refugee communities themselves: by working at the newly-mapped neighbourhood cluster level, involving clusters in the neighbourhood planning process, and training members so communities could be directly involved in and benefit from constructing their own dwellings and the spaces in-between.

Importantly, as CARE’s mid-term shelter programme responds, we need to continue to look for new ways to empower refugee families and strengthen their newly formed camp communities by involvement and participation in programming.

Doing so not only taps into a huge resource of knowledge and activism, but finally puts the neighbourhoods, communities, and individuals that we might otherwise lose sight of in the massive scale of this crisis back at the centre of the process.

James Morgan

With a background in architecture, I first entered the humanitarian world in Haiti after the earthquake of 2010, working on owner driven shelter approaches and large scale programme management. From there I went on to develop shelter experience across a variety of different settings including, post-conflict, refugee, cyclonic and earthquake disasters, and in emergency, recovery and development phases in Haiti, Uganda, South Sudan, the Philippines, St. Maarten and most recently Bangladesh.

I have always been fascinated by the complex considerations inherent when balancing short term (often urgent) needs with the ambition to engender longer term, deeper rooted impacts, and thus I am keenly interested in owner driven approaches to shelter, such as supporting self-recovery, in order to better collaborate with and involve communities in the post disaster shelter process.

Email: jameswamorgan@gmail.com

Twitter: @jameswamorgan