Odd jobs, digital cards help Rohingya refugees navigate aid cut

Seven years after fleeing conflict in Myanmar, displaced Rohingya struggle with aid squeeze in world’s biggest refugee camp.

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. Image: USAID, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Myanmar’s displaced Rohingya are using trade and technology to make the most of life in the world’s biggest refugee camp, with aid agencies hoping that odd jobs and blockchain deliver dignity along with extra money.

Seven years after hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas fled persecution at home for the crowded Cox’s Bazar camp in neighbouring Bangladesh, and a sharp fall in humanitarian aid has forced new survival habits.

Work is one way to top up the depleted food rations, with openings at international aid agencies and unofficial farm labour stints coveted to make life a little better.

The Rohingya are also using blockchain technology with their ration cards to keep track of what finances they do have - 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 in charge of supporting United Nations aid told Context 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 on a recent visit to the sprawling site.

Ultimately there needs to be a long-term solution that ensures safety and dignity for the Rohingya people.

Anas Ansar, senior researcher, Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies

On the move

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 strong, 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 - swallow a growing share of the global aid pot.

Last year, the monthly ration in the camp was slashed from US$12 to US$8 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 US$11 after Prescott used last month’s visit to Cox’s Bazar to pledge an extra US$30.5 million in aid.

The World Food Programme aims to reinstate a full US$12.50 monthly stipend by August, after the US aid pledge.

“The US$8 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.

Life in limbo 

Until there is enough food to go round, aid agencies are innovating to try and help the refugees bridge some of the gap.

They are helping them find work and teaching the Rohingya to use digital technology while they wait on real life to resume.

Inside a large workshop made of bamboo and reeds, men and women sat 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 (US$0.43) an hour.

Workers are employed for four-month stints to win 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, along with the income they offer, candidates grab 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 the officials.

Many more Rohingya people sneak out of the camps and work in the economy informally for US$3 to US$5 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.

Dignity with technology

Technology has also been used to help the refugees, bringing efficiency to the camp economy and some 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, who heads digital solutions and innovation at the WFP.

But technology has been a two-edged sword for the Rohingya.

In Myanmar, the government had 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 Context 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 well 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 Rohingya people,” said Ansar.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit https://www.context.news/

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