Refugees on the Frontlines

Refugees on the Frontlines

On World Refugee Day Oxfam Celebrates Refugee Leadership

Amina, a 21-year-old Rohingya woman living in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps, was having problems with her husband when she learned about a refugee-led women’s group in her community. Amina’s husband had been a farmer in Myanmar, and they had lived happily together until violence forced them to flee across the border to Bangladesh. Unemployed and frustrated with life in the crowded refugee camps, Amina’s husband became abusive.

But things changed for the better after Amina joined the women’s group, which she describes as a “knowledge center.” In discussions with other refugee women, she learned about intimate partner violence and human rights and began to see how power relationships were impacting her life. Amina began sharing these insights with her husband, and while he initially ignored or shouted at her, she didn’t give up. Supported by her peers, she continued to engage him in conversation. Eventually, these discussions led to changes—she tells us that he now listens to her more often and has begun to help share housework.

The peer group Amina joined is just one example of the many ways refugees are leading change in their communities. On both sides of the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, Rohingya refugees face challenging conditions but take active roles in organizing themselves to advocate and respond to their evolving needs amid the uncertainty of life in the camps. Rohingya women play central roles in these efforts, particularly those working as volunteers with Oxfam and other aid agencies.

On World Refugee Day—and every day—Oxfam celebrates the work and resilience of refugee leaders who display remarkable courage and should be recognized and supported.  In Cox’s Bazar, we are working with almost 400 camp-based volunteers to monitor conditions and promote women’s rights and public health. Much of our work in the camps would not be possible without the support of this dedicated network.

Strong refugee leadership is even more essential during the COVID-19 pandemic when humanitarian activities have been reduced to prevent transmission of the virus.

Since the beginning of the outbreak, we have seen volunteers take on a range of roles to promote health and safety, from disinfecting communal areas to teaching their neighbors about handwashing and physical distancing. They are sharing information about COVID-19 symptoms and when and where to seek health care—spreading these critical messages through meetings, audio-learning sessions, and home visits.

These refugees are working on the frontlines of their communities—often placing themselves at heightened risk—and they need support. To date, the Rohingya humanitarian response is only 28% funded. As the displacement crisis intensifies due to the pandemic, we should look for every opportunity to bolster refugee leadership, particularly from women and girls.

“People can only be made strong and empowered by organizing,” a woman leader of a peer-to-peer network of 400 Rohingya women told us. “If we do not stand on our own two feet, how will the world see and understand our problem? We have to stand up.”