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Technology gives hope amid embers of Rohingya camps

After fire devastates refugee settlement, digital initiatives help rebuild lives

A Rohingya refugee, Dil Mohammed, arrives at an emergency response center after a massive fire on March 22 swept through parts of the Kutupalong-Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. (WFP/Sayed Asif Mahmud)

COX'S BAZAR, BANGLADESH -- On March 22, a massive fire swept through the densely populated Rohingya refugee camps in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, destroying at least 10,000 shelters and displacing nearly 45,000 people. At least 11 people died in the fire, but more than 300 are still missing in addition to 360 who suffered severe injuries.

The sudden disaster posed a humanitarian challenge to the World Food Program, the United Nations agency in charge of feeding the refugees. Several of its nutrition centers and food distribution points were destroyed in the fire.

"The scope and scale of this fire was unprecedented," said Richard Ragan, the WFP country director in Bangladesh. Together with partner organizations and thousands of volunteers, the agency supported the families since the start of the tragedy in meeting their more urgent needs of food and water.

A unique factor in WFP's rapid response was the use of biometrics to provide new identity documents to families who lost them in the fire and facilitate immediate access to emergency supplies, and blockchain technology to enable them to shop for fresh and staple foods at e-voucher stores once they are opened again. It was the first time that such technologies were deployed in a disaster situation like the camp tragedy.

Photographer Sayed Asif Mahmud spent days recording the aftermath of the disaster.

When Dil Mohammed's family returned to the site where their shelter once stood, little was left except for some metal pots and pans. Documents that identify Rohingya refugees and enable them to access essential assistance were lost for many families affected by the fire. In a camp made largely of bamboo and tarpaulin, shelters are highly susceptible to fire, especially in the dry winter season. It is still unclear what started the blaze. (WFP/Sayed Asif Mahmud)

 

Using biometric information stored with the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR and accessible through Building Blocks and SCOPE -- two platforms designed by WFP -- refugees left without documentation are able to be identified again. Together with the U.N.'s International Organization for Migration, the partners are rolling out fresh documents at a rapid pace. A week after the fire, over 7,000 families had received new identification cards. (WFP/Sayed Asif Mahmud)

 

The fire started at 3 p.m. on March 22 and was not fully put out until the early hours of March 23. Around 10,000 shelters were destroyed and nearly 70% of the population in four sub-camps were affected. WFP immediately deployed engineering teams, together with UNHCR and IOM, to help combat the fire and distribute nutritious biscuits to feed people through the night. (WFP/Sayed Asif Mahmud)

 

"The fire came from every side," said Mabeya Khatun, standing where her shelter once stood. "It's been almost four years since we came here. When the fire started, we couldn't take anything. I need cooking pots, plates, water jugs, water containers, rice containers and many other things. We don't have a bed and pillow. We have nothing." Many of the 860,000 Rohingya who live in the refugee camp in Cox's Bazar fled Myanmar in 2017. For many, what little they had left from their lives back home was destroyed in the fire. (WFP/Sayed Asif Mahmud)

 

Asia Begum and her husband Nur Mohammed eat biscuits provided by WFP. Surrounding them is a barren campsite where their home once stood. (WFP/Sayed Asif Mahmud)

 

Communal kitchens were set up to prepare hot meals for families displaced by the fire, with 60,000 meals cooked daily for lunch and dinner. (WFP/Sayed Asif Mahmud)

 

Apart supplying food and water, the top priority and biggest challenge is providing new documentation to those who lost everything in the fire. Once someone is identified through the biometric system that connects to the UNHCR database, the person is provided with a replacement SCOPE identity card to gain access to emergency supplies. (WFP/Sayed Asif Mahmud)

 

Inside each emergency package distributed by IOM are essential items such as cooking utensils, cups and plates, clothing, mosquito nets and menstrual hygiene kits. (WFP/Sayed Asif Mahmud)

 

Humanitarian assistance often takes place in remote areas that lack communications networks. The WFP SCOPE cards can be read in these conditions and topped up with credits or voucher-based points. WFP's Building Blocks works online but can be used with or without cards. Both platforms have helped humanitarian agencies transition from paper-based to digital systems so the agencies can understand better the people they are serving and provide them with the right assistance. (WFP/Sayed Asif Mahmud)

 

The fire took everything from Dil Mohammed and his family. Essentials that he received using his new SCOPE card are now the only possessions he owns. (WFP/Sayed Asif Mahmud)

 

For WFP and UNHCR, the Rohingya refugee camps are the first places where they are testing such integrated data solutions within their operations around the world. "This is what innovation is -- this is what digitization is all about. We have people using biometric information, registering, and being prepared to pick up a wide range of entitlements from a number of agencies. This is a group effort between WFP and its sister U.N. agencies, UNHCR and IOM," said Richard Ragan, the WFP country representative in Bangladesh. (WFP/Sayed Asif Mahmud)

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