Australia supports COVID-19 response in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

Neil Doherty, UNHCR Hydraulic Engineer and his colleague, Mr Mitra, preparing the COVID-19 treatment centre in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo credit: Neil Doherty, RedR Australia


“I would watch the news each night and the situation in refugee camps around the world always looked pretty bad. I thought, ‘I've got the skills that could probably help a fair bit with that',” recalls Neil Doherty.

An environmental engineer by trade with a degree from RMIT in Melbourne, Neil has never found a water or drainage problem he couldn't fix. Having spent his career working on council and mining projects across Australia, from Mildura (his home town) to the Gold Coast, Neil has always enjoyed using his knowledge to help Australian communities.

“But, I always wanted to make the world a better place and I am turning 50 this year, so I figured if I didn't take the opportunity to help communities overseas now, I never would.”

As preparations were underway to address the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia, Neil left his Melbourne city apartment to work in the world's largest refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, as part of the Australian Government's humanitarian civilian deployment program, Australia Assists.

One of the 144-bed isolation and treatment centres opened by UNHCR in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh in May 2020. Australia Assists deployee Neil Doherty worked as an engineer for UNHCR to design the waste management systems for these facilities. Photo credit: UNHCR, L.Donovan.

Managed by RedR Australia on behalf of the Australian Government, the Australia Assists program has sent 47 experts, mostly Australians, to support the Rohingya Refugee Crisis response in Bangladesh and Myanmar since 2017.

Neil was initially working with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) – who are leading the global response in the Rohingya refugee camps – to flood-proof the camp before the arrival of the monsoon season. But as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to impact countries across the globe, Neil was urgently redirected to prepare the camp for a potential outbreak of COVID-19.

“I think I was here about four days when I got pulled into COVID-19 work. Within about four weeks a group of us from different humanitarian agencies, working alongside local engineers and workers, had designed and begun construction on a 144-bed emergency isolation and treatment facility. I designed the waste management system. The plans were changing daily and so I was in the camp most days working with the architect and the engineers. That facility is now receiving patients.”

Overcrowded conditions in refugee camps pose a greater risk of spreading communicable diseases, including COVID-19, and Neil's work has been vital to ensuring sanitation facilities are properly designed in the camp's COVID-19 isolation and treatment centres. Australia Assists gives highly skilled Australians like Neil the opportunity to make a real difference and to help our regional neighbours before, during, and after crises and conflict.

The difficult conditions of the refugee settlement in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, home to over 850,000 displaced Rohingya people who have fled from escalating violence in Rakhine State in Myanmar. Photo credit: Max Greenstein, RedR Australia

Currently there are 60 humanitarian experts working through the Australia Assists program to support multiple humanitarian crises around the world. Around half are working from their home base, but as soon as restrictions lift they will travel to where their skills are needed the most, particularly in the Pacific and Southeast Asia.

When he does eventually return home, Neil says there are some things he will miss from his time on deployment. “I worked closely with a Bangladeshi and he is just amazing – we're quite close friends. The other day he dropped by with papaya juice his wife had made to keep me well. I will miss the friends I've made.”

“It is an emotional rollercoaster because you walk through the camps and see kids just being kids, playing soccer, but then you see the women and you can see the pain in their faces. We have this amazing skills base in Australia and it's critical that we share it. It's not just about making other people's lives better, it makes our own lives better too.”

Australia’s humanitarian assistance delivers essential support for the Rohingya people and host community in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. This includes providing food, clean water, health and sanitation services, education, counselling and medical services for women and girls who have experienced violence, and nutritional support primarily for children under five. With Australia’s support, humanitarian agencies have been able to respond quickly to the impacts of COVID-19 in Cox’s Bazar.


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