Three things we’ve learned: Bangladesh Population Movement

Every emergency operation is unique, and one size fits all doesn’t work. Everyone who has been involved in a number of emergency responses can probably recognize this statement. That doesn’t mean we have to reinvent the wheel on every given occasion, not at all. Over time we have developed a substantial shelf of operational inputs to choose from, structures and systems in place that guide our response, a vast number of tools at our disposal and we broadly know which crises profiles require which sectoral responses. Meanwhile our experiences and continual learning leads us to redefine and repackage our shelf options and reconsider the value of our toolbox vis-à-vis contemporary crises. As DRC we have been doing that for as long as I have known the organization. The recent work on developing and launching Disaster Management SOP’s is a clear and recent example. Then once in a while we are confronted with brand new crisis – in scale or form – that take us by surprise and is a game changer (some call it disruption but I’m not quite ready to embrace that concept just yet). Think 2004 Tsunami. A disaster of a magnitude that has shaped RCRC response tools and capacities ever since. Think Ebola. An outbreak of a scale and form that necessitated a complete rethink of large scale epidemic response. Think European Migration Crisis. The RCRC engagement in a complex migration scenario on European soil requiring new considerations and application of RCRC tools, and the development of a more defined protection role.

Now, before you think I am about to elevate the displacement of Muslims from Rakhine in to such a category, that is not the case. However, the situation here has enough unique traits that challenges our conventional approaches and warrants some reflection for learning while also building on previous large scale responses. Before getting in to what we have learned here is a briefish overview of the situation, our response and our plans.


The situation

Key figures as of 15th October 2017







new arrivals since 25 August

Arrivals in settlements & camps

Arrivals in new spontaneous sites

Arrivals in host communities

children in need of assistance prior to 25 Aug

New children need assistance since 25 August






> 4000



infants below 1

children under 5

children 6-18



On 15 October 2017, 537,000 people are estimated to have entered the Cox’s Bazar Division of Bangladesh from Rakhine State in Myanmar since 25 August 2017. In addition to 211.000 arrivals prior to 25th August the total number of affected people is now 750.000 not including host communities. Cox’s Bazar, with population of 2,290,000 (2011 census) is already one of Bangladesh’s poorest and most vulnerable districts. The speed and magnitude of this influx has overwhelmed the capacity of the Government of Bangladesh and humanitarian agencies to respond to immediate needs, with the influx expected to continue. The situation is a continuously evolving, complex migration scenario with all that this entails, including the inherent protection needs of the displaced as non-nationals in the operation area.

Rohingya -37


Arrivals, large proportions of which are women, children and the elderly, are currently residing in makeshift settlements and semi-official refugee camps that are extremely overcrowded. People have made their journey on foot, some for 60 km in searing heat, rains and with no access to food or water and have arrived in an environment that is also unforgiving. People have died in Rakhine, on route and upon arrival. The environmental stressors of life in the camps are many. The area is not suitable for mass populations, basic infrastructure does not exist leading to open defecation, contamination of existing water sources is widespread, and vector borne and communicable diseases rampant.  Living in overcrowded makeshift shelters raises concerns about personal safety and serves to deteriorate the mental health and psychosocial well-being of the affected who have already survived desperate conditions and potentially traumatic events on route to Bangladesh. The situation is as dire as any that I have ever witnessed.

Ny Rohingya -4


DRC response – now and future

DRC has been responding to the crisis since May 2017. We have been supporting the WASH component of the IFRC Emergency Appeal through a bilateral cooperation with the BDRCS. With a focus on safe water, sanitation and hygiene have been providing water through household water treatment and storage items, hygiene kits and hygiene promotion. So far we have reached 9000 households (45.000 individuals) with these activities, which is impressive considering that very few actors have even got started yet. These activities continue and we are trying to reach more while also repeating services, especially within water, over time. Due to an extended presence in country our Programme Delegate, Lea Acallar, has been instrumental in getting operations running and not just for DRC. Using her knowledge and skills she has assisted the ERU’s in getting their hygiene promotion of the ground.

Lea Acallar
DRC Programme Delegate Lea Acallar at Hygiene Kit distribution and hygiene promotion activity

As we continue our WASH response we are scaling up our response to the immense gaps within protection and psychosocial support. Our strategy, developed together with IFRC FACT counterparts is based an integrated and mainstreamed approach that ensures targeted protection and psychosocial interventions in an integrated manner.


What we’ve learned

So here’s what we have learned so far from this operation.

1.     Standard tools for non-standard disasters don’t work.

Clean water, adequate sanitation and hygiene promotion are three interrelated pillars of our regular response to potential and ongoing WASH disasters. But the situation in Bangladesh has put a spanner in those works. Our greatest challenge in WASH is moving from software (combined with kits and items), to a hardware based approach with water and sanitation facilities. A snapshot of constraints include the challenging terrain, the space available, low water yield potential, limited access for drilling equipment (i.e. for drilling), and options for desludging of latrines. It’s not for lack of trying. Our WASH ERU’s and technical experts from near and far are scratching their heads. So what do we do when we run in to a perfect storm of constraints? We don’t have the answer for this particular crisis (yet) but it serves as a reminder that regardless of the skills of our people and the quality of our equipment there will be times when our current options aren’t sufficient. What I HAVE seen though is an incredible level of creativity and the pouring out of innovative (and some crazy) ideas. I’d be surprised if this operation does not sow the seed for innovations that we will see applied for years to come simply because there was no other choice.

2.    A One-Window-Approach can harness the collective

Much has been said (on and offline) around the Movement’s emergency response systems, financing mechanisms and the coordination of these. There are many schools of thought on what works and what doesn’t, and I doubt there are many out there who are 100% satisfied regardless of the hat worn (NS, IFRC, ICRC). The most recent iteration of attempts to coordinate a Movement Response is called the One-Window-Approach which rests on agreed mechanisms of decision making, coordination and one plan for all. It’s not exactly a revolution (or disruption) but it has merits and here it works because there is a mutually beneficial recognition of the importance of and willingness to coordinate, align and harmonise. It has generated an acceptance of the mechanism, the roles on it, and what is accepted practice. And that is quite an achievement in an operation that includes quite a number of RCRC actors to be coordinated. Also, it is the small things that have made it the successful – not the big plan in and of itself. It’s things like co-opting partner representatives in to the FACT team, it’s giving space to particular interests, it’s taking partner contributions in to account when sector planning, it’s partners attending the FACT team coordination meetings and then it is of course also good leadership.  It’s not perfect, it never will be, but it a vast improvement and that’s positive.

3.    Adopting multilateral components with bilateral assistance could be a way forward

As DRC our early engagement in this operation came through the adoption of an entire component of the IFRC Emergency Appeal – the WASH component – and implementing it with bilateral means. It’s a new and interesting approach and credit to those who came up with it here in the region. Simply put, it lies somewhere between the two modalities of DRC action, the multilateral i.e. funding an appeal and the bilateral i.e. implementing a project with the national society. It takes the best of both of these modalities. It allows for the longer term DRC identity and strategy of scaling up its presence in Bangladesh. It underpins DRC wish to build a strengthened relationship with the national society as well as better document the DRC presence and contextual knowledge. Meanwhile it lets DRC contribute to and leverage the capacity of the wider Movement, the technical and operational capacity in place, while also aligning to the above mentioned coordinated approach. There are still kinks to iron out, we are still learning from it, and it will not fit for all operations but for now things are looking very positive. 


Dennis Kjeldsen, DRC Operation Manager, Bangladesh Population Movement Operation

Dennis Selfie (1)