Facebook Posts Aren’t Going to Help the Rohingya Refugees
“Never in my life have I seen so many frightened people, huddled together, in such a small space,” my friend posted on Facebook in October. A resident at a local hospital, she is working unpaid hours at Ukhia, responding to the arrival of over half a million persecuted Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh since late August. Wounded men, raped women, children who witnessed their parents getting slaughtered — the survivors tell horrific tales of how the Buddhist militia attacked and burnt homes to the ground. In less than 70 days, Kutupalong — now one of the largest refugee camps in the world — has become makeshift shelter to nearly 300,000 Rohingya Muslims.
Sabhanaz Rashid Diya (@diya880) is a social scientist at Luc.id and a journalist. She founded the Bangladeshi youth nonprofit One Degree Initiative Foundation and has worked to develop economic and technology policies for governments and multilateral organizations.
Jahanara, a young Rohingya woman, was standing in the relief queue with her 4-month old daughter for nearly six hours one day in October when trained volunteers from my organization, One Degree Initiative Foundation, approached her. They had not eaten anything since the night before. As others went about their day, Jahanara told the volunteers that this was not uncommon. Baby food, women’s hygiene products, emergency medicine, mosquito repellent, and power had all been lacking since she had arrived in Balukhali , one of the many sites where the authorities have permitted makeshift settlements to be set up , three weeks earlier. In spite of resettlement efforts from a number of multilateral organizations and local NGOs, the United Nations estimates it still needs $434 million to meet the needs of the Rohingya refugees.
Since the early 1990s, in the midst of reports of human rights abuses by the Myanmar army, successive waves of Rohingya Muslims have been displaced from the state of Rakhine, Myanmar, and have headed for Bangladesh. The UN Refugee Agency was among the first to respond back then; this time, since the unprecedented influx in August, local volunteers and professional aid workers alike have occupied the camps.
My friend the medical resident is among hundreds who traveled to Kutupalong to volunteer their services. Because I’ve worked with pools of volunteers trained in humanitarian crisis response for 11 years in Bangladesh, my social circle has evolved into an expansive network of first responders, young entrepreneurs, development practitioners, and journalists. So I recently found my Facebook newsfeed inundated with updates: “half the refugees are children”, “pregnant women face unspeakable challenges”, “10,000 new arrivals today”, “need emergency relief.”
In the aftermath of most disasters, victims use Facebook’s safety check megaphone to indicate they are safe. But in this case, the story of persecuted Muslims from the state of Rakhine is a social media narrative told through the lens of volunteers, photographers, and relief groups.
This story very quickly evolved to a desperate appeal for donations, and urbanites in the country’s capital reacted quickly. Corporate agencies and college students launched campaigns on Facebook and collected old clothes, bottles of filtered water, cookies and other dry food, baby towels, blankets, and cash. There was only one problem: These well-intentioned people did not know where and how to distribute these goods.
This is not a new scenario in humanitarian crisis, and certainly not one for Bangladesh, especially in the advent of social networking platforms. When I was working in rehabilitation initiatives following the 2013 Savar tragedy — an 8-story factory building collapsed in broad daylight and killed 1,134 garment workers — I experienced a similar sense of urgency and intent from Dhakaites.
Within hours of the collapse, Facebook became a free market for sending and receiving donations , without much specificity on what was actually needed, and my phone rang endlessly. Everyone asked how they could help, and some even sent relief packages to our office: water, painkillers, and dry food. There were images on Facebook of well-intended people handing off a check to a wailing mother here and a distraught husband there.
The reality of the situation, however, was more grave. Victims and families did not need packages and Facebook posts; they needed answers and medical attention. Hospitals needed fewer reporters and amateur photographers, and instead would have benefitted from more staff and more beds to tend to injured workers. At our small office, we needed more space to brief volunteers, who in turn, could support more families to find their loved ones , who were sometimes located dead or in a wheelchair.
More recently, as I browsed through Facebook, I saw a familiar pattern emerge. My friends — many of whom are either paramedics or journalists in Dhaka, but working at the camps — posted photographs of exasperated volunteers in a truck, leaving the camps hurriedly while throwing clothes in all directions. Despite their mostly good intentions, they were not prepared to meet the hunger and desperation of refugees both inside and outside the camp—realities that virtual platforms clearly failed to communicate. There are videos of many trucks, fleeing and leaving behind a stampede of children and trail of ripped jeans and cookie boxes.
What I find most unsettling is the apparent need to immediately post images or words on Facebook following disasters. Our virtual network inevitably demands our presence — sometimes through a gesture of benevolence, other times by reposting the viral image of a crying child, heavily post-processed to strip her off whatever little dignity she has left, and a note that says: “Can you not feel the pain? Do something.”
I remember a particularly frightening picture of the photographing of a Rohingya Hindu woman on Facebook. Her husband was killed in front of her and she had walked— sometimes ran — for eight days to reach the refugee camp in Teknaf. Her face was posted everywhere to prove hardline Buddhists did not spare anyone, but the hollowness in her eyes was unmistakable. The picture that shook me was that of a crowd of people with their smartphones out, surrounding her — tapping and flashing — as she stared back in silence.
In managing any form of disaster , whether by retrieving bodies under rubbles or aiding 24,000 pregnant women at a refugee camp , the most important action is resisting the human urge to do something and subsequently, doing more harm than good. Entering the Rohingya camps without having adequate trauma training and coordination with organizations on the ground can be just as impeding as the overcrowding rendered through so-called disaster tourism, a phrase that has become increasingly familiar as social networking platforms grow. The only effective way to meet needs is by channeling monetary donations to organizations that have the capacity to manage crisis and let authorities work with locals to do their jobs.
The 1998 flooding in Bangladesh was deemed to be the disaster of the century, covering more than two-thirds of the country. Despite significant loss of agricultural lands, fewer flood-related deaths occurred than expected. Broadly effective government interventions, targeted information dissemination, and centrally coordinated response from civil society prevented what could have been a more fatal blow to the country. In absence of social networking platforms that are so insidiously tied to our social identities, did we mourn less for those deaths and harm that occurred? Does the absence of our presence make it less cumbersome for authorities to do their jobs?
When a Rohingya woman named Khalida arrived with her three children in Shah Porir Dwip, Bangladesh, at dawn a few weeks ago, she told the medical team that she was first greeted by local volunteers. As volunteers, first responders, and journalists later told me, Khalida’s photograph was hastily taken by a bunch of young boys wearing identical shirts who promised to help her. Later that day, she found herself — alone — in the middle of a puddle, making her way to a place where help actually exists.
As refugees continue coming and media coverage detracting, the best way to response to the crisis is by donating to the UN Refugee Agency and largest local NGO, BRAC , not post empty calls for help on Facebook.
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