• Wednesday, July 24, 2024

ASIA

Rohingya embrace tech for survival in refugee camp

Blockchain and odd jobs bring autonomy to refugees in Cox’s Bazar

Conditions at the camp are hard and rations are now low too, as competing conflicts absorb a growing share of the global aid budget

By: Eastern Eye

MYANMAR’S displaced Rohingya are using trade and technology to improve life in the world’s largest refugee camp, with aid agencies hoping that odd jobs and blockchain can deliver dignity alongside extra money.

Seven years after hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas fled persecution for the crowded Cox’s Bazar camp in Bangladesh, a sharp fall in humanitarian aid has forced new survival habits. Work is one way to supplement depleted food rations, with openings at international aid agencies and unofficial farm labour stints coveted to enhance life.

The Rohingya are also using blockchain technology with their ration cards to track their finances, giving a greater sense of ownership even while living hand to mouth. “Unfortunately, this conflict is not nearing an end, and these people are going to need our help,” the US official supporting United Nations aid told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an exclusive interview.

“People in the camp should have more of an opportunity to improve their own lives and get involved in meaningful work,” Jeffrey Prescott, US ambassador to the UN agencies for food and agriculture, said during a recent visit to the sprawling site.

In 2017, some 730,000 Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority denied citizenship in their Buddhist-majority nation, crossed the Bangladeshi border to Cox’s Bazar to escape a military crackdown at home.

Their arrival boosted an already crowded camp to nearly a million, with families, friends, and strangers jammed side by side in tens of thousands of huts made from bamboo and thin plastic sheets.

Once again, Myanmar’s Rohingya community is under threat of attacks and displacement at home as fighting between a powerful ethnic army and the country’s ruling junta escalates in the western state of Rakhine, according to aid agencies.

Thousands are estimated to have fled towards Bangladesh since mid-May, and many of those still in Rakhine are in dire need of aid.

Conditions at the camp are hard and rations are now low too, as competing conflicts – from Ukraine to the Middle East – absorb a growing share of the global aid budget.

Last year, the monthly ration in the camp was slashed from £9.4 to £6.3 per head as the world delivered only half of the £876 million that the UN had earmarked for Rohingya projects.

That ration is now set to creep back up to £8.6 after Prescott used last month’s visit to Cox’s Bazar to pledge an extra £24 million in aid. The World Food Programme aims to reinstate a full £9.8 monthly stipend by August, after the US aid pledge.

“The £6.3 food ration was simply not enough to fill our stomachs over the entire month,” said Mohammad Salim, who lives in the camp with two wives and several children. Until there is enough food to go around, aid agencies are innovating to help refugees bridge the gap. They are helping them find work and teaching the Rohingya to use digital technology while they wait for real life to resume.

Inside a large workshop made of bamboo and reeds, men and women sit in segregated sections working the production line for bags, baskets, and clothes to sell in the local market.

Fatema Begum, who was just 15 when she moved to Bangladesh, now makes handicrafts for 50 taka (£0.34) an hour. Workers are employed for four month stints to earn extra income and learn new skills, she said. “Thanks to this job, I can get better snacks in the evening for myself and my kids,” said the 22-year-old as she cleaned and sliced aluminium packages to upcycle into bags.

Employed by international aid agencies, Rahima Khatun takes care of trees that were planted to restore a riverside forest destroyed during the Rohingya influx. Given the small number of jobs available, candidates seize any opportunities offered, but proper, full-time jobs are not allowed by the authorities.

Shops set up by refugees inside the camps have previously been bulldozed by officials. Many Rohingya sneak out of the camps and work informally for £2.3-£3.9 a day – 25-30 per cent lower than Bangladeshi workers – stirring mixed feelings among locals.

“Our area has been tainted by Rohingya presence – as lots of trees have been chopped down to make room for the camps, while cheap Rohingya labour sometimes outcompetes local workers for farming jobs,” said local farmer Abdur Rahman.

Technology has also been used to help the refugees, bringing efficiency to the camp economy and a sense of ownership to people who lack life’s basics.

In 2017, the World Food Programme introduced the world’s largest blockchain-based cash distribution system in the Rohingya camps – an innovation it has since expanded to provide aid from Lebanon to Ukraine. Under the system, refugees can buy food with the monthly cash allocated to them through a digital wallet, so they do not need a bank account or to wait in line for rations.

Nur Khatun, 24, came to buy rice, oil, and fruit for her family at an e-voucher outlet, paying with her digital card. “I come to buy my weekly groceries as and when needed – and we don’t have to line up for getting our monthly rations at one go,” she said. Aid workers say the tech gives refugees greater autonomy.

“Shopping with cards like other people gives them a sense of normalcy and dignity,” said Clara Ogando, head of digital solutions and innovation at the WFP.

But technology has been a double-edged sword for the Rohingya. In Myanmar, the government used biometric data and an enforced identity system to monitor and target the Rohingya. So UN agencies are careful to protect their information, sharing data only when necessary to deliver services.

WFP’s Bangladesh country director Dom Scalpelli told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the UN agencies try to ensure safe and fair use of the data – and their biometrics are not shared in the food distribution system.

Odd jobs and tech may help, but they will not deliver a better future, according to Anas Ansar, senior researcher at Germany’s Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies.

“None of these solve the question about the Rohingya people’s future—while the world’s attention keeps shifting to other contexts like Ukraine and Palestine,” he said.

“Ultimately there needs to be a long-term solution that ensures safety and dignity for the displaced Rohingya people,” Ansar added.

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