Interview: Gwyn Lewis
Cut in funding for Rohingyas is devastating
Gwyn Lewis joined as the UN Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh in May 2022. Prior to her assignment in Dhaka, she had served as Director of United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in the West Bank from 2019. She has over 20 years’ experience in international development, peace and humanitarian assistance. In an interview with Prothom Alo’s Raheed Ejaz and Ayesha Kabir taken on 25 February, she spoke in detail on the Rohingya crisis, freedom of expression, the elections and more.
Since independence the UN has been one of the major actors in Bangladesh's development. Presently, which are the major areas of assistance and cooperation?
The UN has been here for a very long. The first UN organisation in Bangladesh was UNHCR, the UN refugee agency in 1971. A lot of people here talk about the UNICEF support they received at school or the World Food Programme assistance with food. So the UN is a part of the history of Bangladesh. Bangladesh is on its way to graduate out of least developed country category and the relationship has changed. We have a cooperation framework with the government where we focus on development areas of support. There are five areas at the moment. One is around economic development, particularly LDC graduation. Another is on environment and climate and how the UN can support in terms of mitigation and adaptation and reinforcing the government’s planning. We do a lot of work on the social side: education, through UNICEF and UNESCO, health support, through WHO, UNFPA, UNICEF. We also do work on social protection and social work. We have a pillar on gender and gender-based violence and working towards equality and addressing violence against women and girls. Finally we have a pillar on governance, reinforcing institutions and providing support to the ministries.
We have work on the humanitarian side, in close relationship with the ministry of disaster risk management. We do work on preparedness, anticipating disasters and immediate response for disasters. We are trying to reinforce that because the number of climate disasters that Bangladesh is facing is unfortunately going to be bigger and more recurrent.
The final piece is supporting the Rohingya refugees who are in Cox’s Bazar and Bhasan Char. UNHCR and IOM lead the response and the majority of the support to the Rohingya refugees comes through the UN partners and the NGOs on the ground.
The Rohingya crisis has been continuing for the last six years and we don’t see any sign of repatriation. Do you think the UN system can play a more active role in resolving these crises?
The UN system is made up of member states, and this is particularly relevant when it comes to the political side of the support. For the UN the work is really about leveraging the capacity and governments’ support to resolve issues like the conflict in Myanmar. There was a very positive move at the end of December – the Security Council resolution called for calm in Myanmar and for moving towards dialogue and addressing some of the more humanitarian issues. It also recognized Bangladesh’s role in supporting the Rohingya. The Security Council move helped in keeping the issue alive on the political stage. The work that the Special Envoy for Myanmar is doing is challenging, leveraging whatever political pressure can be brought to bear. It is challenging because the Myanmar junta is becoming more and more isolationist. The ASEAN five-point consensus is not getting as much traction as we would have liked. The UN is very often left to negotiate on humanitarian issues. It is about governments in the region and internationally engaging and putting pressure on the authorities in Myanmar. The UN has a very important role to play but it is about how the member states are engaging in those discussions.
We are worried about the lack of attention towards the Rohingya refugees in terms of funding. We are doing our best to raise the issue of financial support, because of the lack of attention and also competing crises -- whether the Ukraine crisis or the earthquake in Turkey. Global attention is going to there, which is also fair because people there are dying and suffering. But it also means a lot of the funding is moving away from the Rohingya response. That is very worrying.
WFP has said it will be slashing funds for refugees. That spells bad news for the Rohingyas in Bangladesh, and for Bangladesh. What is your stand on that?
WFP had to announce a ration cut and that is devastating. We, as a community, are very worried. I personally am worried. We will not be able to provide the 2100 kilo calories that are needed per person. Currently, with a full ration, we are not addressing all the nutrition needs of a person, only the basic calories needs, and reducing their ration from 12 dollars to 10 dollars will have a significant impact. Food doesn’t just keep you nourished. You are more vulnerable if you have underlying health issues. It has a greater impact on children and pregnant women. So we are trying to make a strong advocacy push with all of the donors and trying to find new donors, for example the Gulf countries to provide support.
We are launching an appeal for funding the Rohingya crisis in Geneva on 7 March. State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Shahriar Alam, will be at that event. We need to raise 125 million USD for food for the Rohingyas. When you are trying to compete and fund-raise, it is a challenge. It is very worrying because the refugees in Cox’s Bazar can’t work and are very dependent on the international community for their basic needs.
When you met the prime minister recently, she requested the UN to engage more in Bhasan Char. How are you engaging there, what with the fund crisis?
We are absolutely tight on funding, you are correct. Bhasan Char is a project that the Bangladesh government initiated and they created housing and facilities including buildings for schools and buildings for health centres on the island. The agreement is, we will do what we can to move up to 90,000 people on to the island. That process is ongoing. Right now there are close to 30,000 refugees on Bhasan Char. It is a very complex process. It has to be a voluntary movement. When they move, there is a process to make sure they have housing. It is not as quick as the government hoped initially, but it is ongoing.
The good news is, we have been able to provide full rations on Bhasan Char. But it is challenging to maintain fundraising for both Cox’s Bazar and Bhasan Char. We want to provide the same services. We don’t want to send refugees to Bhasan Char and then they will not be able to send their children to school or have access to health services. It is about 30 per cent more expensive to provide food to Bhasan Char. We are committed to provide humanitarian support same as in Cox’s Bazar camps. We are not able to build buildings or provide maintenance. Anything that is infrastructure or transportation on or off the island, we rely on the government to maintain.
Special rapporteurs have reminded Bangladesh about its commitment to freedom of speech, media freedom and right to assembly. Do you think the country is on the right track? If not, what are the flaws?
The Special Rapporteurs are independent experts. They come on the invitation of the government to discuss climate change, human rights, human trafficking or there was a recent visit regarding leprosy. There is a Bangladeshi Special Rapporteur Irene Khan who works on Freedom of Opinion and Expression. They would be much better placed to talk about these specific technical areas. The work that we do in my office is to facilitate those visits, provide them with support.
The prime minister has said she is committed to free and fair elections. We support and promote that. It is very important that the government is inviting special rapporteurs who are providing constructive feedback on these issues.
Outside of the special rapporteurs, does the UN have a stand on freedom of speech, media freedom, freedom of expression?
Of course, it is very much embedded in the UN Charter. It is very much something we believe, a part of our principles. This is an important ongoing dialogue with the government. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has spoken and given feedback on the Digital Security Act and the Data Protection Act. To facilitate those processes, we consult with experts to provide advice about freedom of expression, freedom of media. I recently chaired a roundtable with the information ministry to talk about the freedom of media in Bangladesh and brought together stakeholders from the government and civil society to have an open dialogue about concerns that people have in the country.
Apart from the certain provisions of the Digital Security Act, the UN raised concern about the proposed Data Protection Act and submitted some proposals for amendments. What is the latest status of your suggestions?
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) went through the law and provided comments. That was back in June. We have been following up. As far as I know, there have been no comments or feedback sent back to OHCHR on DSA specifically. I know what law minister Anisul Huq has been saying in the media, that these comments will be taken into consideration, but we haven’t got anything back from the government as yet. On Data Protection, the comments were submitted in July. We appreciated that there was a dialogue that we didn’t see in the case of the DSA. But there hasn’t been any feedback yet. The DSA has been passed into law, but the minister has said things can be changed despite that fact. He said the implementation on the ground would be adapted based on the requirements or issues. But we haven’t seen anything formally changed.
Have you had any discussions ahead of the parliamentary election? Any awareness programme or providing resources to the election commission?
I met the election commissioner a couple of weeks ago and talked about what support they needed. They mentioned voter awareness, capacity development for people who would be manning the polling stations. We are at the preliminary stage of that conversation and are still trying to articulate that support and waiting for the more formal request from the election commission.
We are approaching the next general election and the international community stresses on free, fair and credible elections. The EU has decided to send an election observation mission. In previous elections UN actively engaged with the government in the electoral process including the voter ID. What is your plan for the forthcoming election?
There needs to be a request from the government, if they would like election observers. The only other time that it doesn’t come from the government is in a different context. For example, if there was a crisis, a war, and something is decided in the Security Council or the General Assembly, which isn’t in the case of Bangladesh. I have talked to the election commission about what support the UN can provide. It is really up to the election commission and the government to decide if they want to request support.
Do you work with the civil society or the non-government sector in this area?
A UN agency, say UN Women, could work with civil society if it had something to do with ensuring women’s participation in the election or inter-party dialogue with women’s groups or something to that effect. Another example is when we chaired a roundtable on freedom of media, we invited civil society to make sure that there is consultation and feedback. Consulting with civil society is something that we recommend strongly when there are any policy changes or decisions including dialogue on the election. To reiterate, the support that we provide would have to be requested by the government. That is very much a part of UN policies.