Faye Coggins is an Associate Programme Officer with UNHCR (the UN refugee agency), deployed to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh
June 2022 – UNHCR, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh
Four flights, 25 hours, and 8,500 kilometres after departing Jersey airport on a cold February morning, I stepped off the plane in the subtropical city of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. All going to plan, the city I will call home for the next two years, for the duration of my role as JPO Programme Officer for UNHCR.
Situated on the coast in the southeast of Bangladesh, Cox’s Bazar is a lively fishing port, and the country’s most popular tourist destination. Most famously known for its long natural sandy beach, a quick Google search reveals images of beautiful stretches of golden sand, seafront hotels, and fish markets bustling with tourists. However, a mere 30 kilometres from the centre of Cox’s Bazar, sits the largest refugee settlement in the world, home to over one million Rohingya refugees forcibly displaced from Myanmar. Most arrived in Bangladesh in 2017, fleeing persecution and human rights violations. Completely dependent on the generous support of the Bangladeshi government and humanitarian agencies for basic needs such as shelter, food, and health services, the Rohingya are one of the largest stateless populations in the world, deprived of their citizenship by the Myanmar government and forced from their homeland, with no route back in sight. Some refugees have endured years of trauma through displacement and targeted violence in Myanmar. Some were born in the camp and have never seen their own country or even ventured outside of the camp walls.
What’s more, the Rohingya live in precarious conditions. When they first fled Myanmar, there was nowhere to go, and the settlements in Cox’s Bazar were established expeditiously to accommodate the hundreds of thousands crossing the border in desperate need of refuge. They are housed in temporary shelters in a highly congested camp setting, and with Bangladesh ranking third in the world among states most hit by natural disasters, Rohingya refugees are highly exposed to weather-related hazards. They face great risks from the upcoming monsoon season, as their shelters are on hillsides, which will turn to mud when the heavy rains arrive.
I’ve been fortunate to visit the refugee camps and meet some of the Rohingya and Bangladeshi national volunteers who selflessly give their time to try and improve the day-to-day lives of the refugees. Visiting the camps is a humbling experience. As you make your way through the bamboo walkways, you are met with a sense of friendliness and welcoming, with people happy to speak and eager to share their experiences. Despite the unfathomable trauma and hardship that the Rohingya refugee population has endured, the refugees’ resilience and drive to fight for an improved way of life is evident.
Life for the local population of Cox’s Bazar is also far from easy. Cox’s Bazar is one of Bangladesh’s poorest and most vulnerable districts, with 33 per cent living below the poverty line, and 17 per cent below the extreme poverty line. UNHCR and its local NGO partners work tirelessly to provide essential services to the refugees, as well as support to the host community, but the scale of the situation means there are many people in desperate need, and it is hard to support them all.
My role at UNHCR sits within the Programme Team. We are the unit that oversees the implementation of service delivery to refugees in the camps, whether that is education services, construction of latrines, community awareness raising on health and hygiene, or ensuring that refugees have access to food and medicine. Perhaps most importantly, the Programme team coordinates with UNHCR’s local NGO partners, who provide the essential local knowledge and expertise to design projects to ensure that refugees have access to the services they need, and that UNHCR’s mandate to provide protection and assistance is achieved.
Becoming familiar with the local NGO teams and the projects they are implementing with UNHCR has been one of my favourite parts of the role so far. Despite the challenging context, innovation is everywhere to be seen. Some such examples include the introduction of the vertical gardening concept, whereby the refugees’ shelter rooftops are turned into vegetable gardens, allowing them to provide nutrition for their family, gain new skills, whilst also helping cool their homes. Also, the training of refugee volunteers to encourage community self-management, whereby the volunteers lead on identifying and responding to multiple issues in the camps, whether it be responding to natural disasters, providing mental health and social support, or teaching in schools.
I can hardly believe that’s it’s been four months since I arrived in Cox’s Bazar. It’s been a rewarding and enjoyable time, with every day bringing a new challenge and experience. Thanks to the generous welcome from my team at UNHCR, I’m feeling very much at home here. I’m also very much looking forward to discovering more of the region. Bangladesh is a beautiful country, marked by lush greenery, mangrove forests, and beautiful coastlines, with an abundance of wildlife, historical monuments, and seemingly endless opportunities to explore!
But most importantly, I am looking forward to building my skills as a Programme Officer, and hopefully doing justice to the amazing opportunity I’ve been given to work for an organisation working on the frontline of displacement, ensuring life-saving services are delivered to those in need.
Why did you apply for the JPO role?
The JPO scheme presents an incredible opportunity for people wanting to pursue a career in the humanitarian sector, and the exposure to field work that it provides is extremely valuable. I have been working with NGOs for the past few years, my role with HelpAge International, which works to protect the rights of older and disabled refugees and IDPs across the world (including in Cox’s Bazar), led me to become increasingly interested in working with refugees and IDPs. I learnt about the plight of the Rohingya Refugees, and the decades of systematic discrimination, statelessness and targeted violence they have suffered; forcing them to flee into neighbouring Bangladesh. This experience further motivated me to work for an organisation that seeks solutions to these crises and fights to protect the rights of people forced into such vulnerable situations.
The JPO role presents a brilliant opportunity to translate the programme management skills and experience you have gained domestically with INGOs and a donor into an international career at the frontline of displacement. In addition, the opportunity to gain field experience and build my skills and knowledge of the refugee context from the perspective of an organisation like UNHCR, which is at the forefront of the humanitarian sector, is unparalleled. The prospect of being able to contribute to UNHCR’s work on behalf of refugees and stateless persons was an incredibly exciting one, so putting in an application for the JPO role was a no brainer!
What relevant experience do you have?
I have worked in the international development sector for nearly three years. I got my start as an admin/team assistant for the Fred Hollows Foundation, a charity whose goal is to eliminate avoidable blindness and improve eye health services in disadvantaged communities.
I then landed the Jersey Overseas Aid International Development Internship. During this time I spent 2 months with JOA, learning how an institutional donor operates, including how it prioritises it’s funding and how it reviews funding proposals to ensure that the aid budget is effectively spent. I then spent just over a year with HelpAge International, a UK based NGO, which included a 2 month secondment to their Dar Es Salaam Office. During my time at HelpAge, I gained a lot of valuable experience – both practical – in terms of programme implementation – and also thematic knowledge. I worked with the Protection Team to develop Rapid Needs Assessment reports on older people in refugee camps in South America and Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh (including in partnership with UNHCR) and analyse the results of these surveys in order to inform and improve programme design/advocacy. I worked on the development of technical documents which laid out how to design gender and disability inclusive services and ensure that protection needs in refugee camps are met.
For the past year I have been working for an international development organisation which works to improve health care services and outcomes for women in lower income countries. In this role I worked with multiple different country teams across Africa and Asia, including Bangladesh, and learned valuable skills such as programme cycle management, programme reporting, and partnership management.
What are you most excited about / looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to so many things, such as the opportunity to work in the field, and gain exposure to UNHCR’s humanitarian work and putting the skills and experience I’ve gained so far towards implementing programmes and services that will directly benefit the refugees in Cox’s Bazar. I’m eager to build my programme management and monitoring and evaluation skills and develop a more detailed understanding of the camp context and in Bangladesh in general. I count myself very lucky to be a part of a program that strives to protect the most vulnerable.
I’m also looking forward to the incredible learning experience of working in a multilateral organisation such as UNHCR. In a world of increasingly complex humanitarian crises, no one organisation or country can meet the challenges, and Cox’s Bazar is a setting in which many organisations are working collaboratively to address the refugee crisis. To experience how UNHCR coordinates with local and international NGOs and private sector partners, and how they navigate the challenges that come with this, will also be a valuable learning opportunity.
What are your aspirations for the next year and what do you hope to get out of this amazing experience?
I would like to feel confident that I have become a useful and valued team member, and that I have positively contributed to the work to support and protect refugees. I also hope to grow professionally and become more skilled and knowledgeable in the field of humanitarian work, specifically in relation to refugee protection. Additionally, I’m looking forward to gaining work experience in the international sphere and hope that this role will provide me with opportunities for an international career.
Tell us a little about yourself…
I’ve been motivated to pursue a career with an organisation working to protect the rights of disadvantaged groups and address the determinants of social inequality since university, where I studied world history, with a focus on minority rights, civil rights movements and social injustice. This is what led me to pursue a career in the sector. It has been a privilege to work in a sector and role that I’m passionate about, with colleagues that challenge, inspire and motivate me to build my skills and knowledge. Even when you’re sitting in the London office of an NGO, far from the programme implementation site, it’s a wonderful thing to feel you are having a positive impact on a global scale. The work of humanitarians and development professionals can be challenging — organisations are constantly responding to complex crises. However for that very reason, the work can be exhilarating and varied, and you are constantly presented with opportunities to learn and grow
What advice would you give to any youngsters who may be interested in a career in the sector?
Get an internship or volunteer experience if you can. There are many different areas in which you can work in the sector, so take the time to work out what you are most passionate about and which area will best complement your skill set! Don’t lose heart if you don’t get your dream role straight away. The sector is competitive, so can be tricky to break in to. Every bit of experience you have will help you to become a more rounded development or humanitarian worker, will broaden your skill set, and will deepen your understanding of the global development context.
(Image 1: “Monsoon rains and flash floods hit Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar’ – July 2021”. Credit: UNHCR/Pablo Amos)
(Image 2: “‘Health workers raise COVID-19 awareness in Rohingya refugee camps, Bangladesh) – Aug 2021”. Credit: UNHCR/Pablo Amos)