Cox’s Bazar, 25 Oct 2021 – When Abdul was asked what his job was, he could only reply: "I’m not doing anything, sir.” That first visit from an International Organization for Migration (IOM) project officer is still fresh in Abul’s mind, coming when he had lost all hope of ever finding a job again. He is one of the close to 1 million community members in Cox’s Bazar whose work dried up at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When movement restrictions started to tighten in March 2020, his job as an auto-rickshaw driver became dispensable. With a leg disability and no end in sight to the pandemic, his frantic search for new income soon proved futile.

According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, Cox’s Bazar is one of the lowest-performing districts in Bangladesh for education and skills training, with about 33 per cent of the population living below the poverty line. COVID-19 further threatened the welfare of millions of people across the country, with large-scale redundancies of workers and widespread food insecurity.

The five-person co-op ‘Shapla Fresh Food Corner’ focuses on dried fish processing, a lucrative industry in Cox’s Bazar. Photos: IOM/Mashrif Abdullah Al 

To help host community members cope with the new circumstances and earn a living, IOM started offering alternative income-generating activities and found that some community members preferred farming activities while others chose different opportunities.

IOM and its partners regularly conduct training modules on poultry farming, vegetable cultivation, and livestock, while for off-farm activities, participants can attend sessions on tailoring, dried fish processing, plumbing, and food processing, among others.

By helping vulnerable individuals to develop the skills needed to meet the employment demands of the labour market, IOM’s livelihoods programme aims to contribute to the economic stability of host communities.

Project participants have the choice to attend training modules on different topics ranging from electrical wiring to plumbing. Photos: IOM/Mashrif Abdullah Al 

“They asked me how many family members I had and whether I had parents,” Abul recalls. During the assessment, Abul said he wanted to continue working with auto-rickshaws and he was invited to attend a 15-day training on auto-rickshaw mechanics.

Additionally, all the participants attended a three-day training on entrepreneurship and business planning. IOM works with local partners to conduct skills development training, boosting efficiency and flexibility.

“We provide community members with training on business development, supply and demand, and market analysis,” says Sharmin Akter, Livelihood Programme Officer with IOM in Cox’s Bazar. “These sessions are essential for ensuring that participants can earn an income once the training is over.”

During the pandemic, Abul’s passion for driving auto-rickshaws translated to running an auto-rickshaw repair shop. Photos: IOM/Mashrif Abdullah Al 

Like Abul, many youths in the district have long struggled to find decent socio-economic opportunities. Unemployment among young people in host communities has been linked to a lack of soft skills and relevant networks to access market opportunities.

Through livelihood projects, IOM hopes to help young people develop skills related to verbal and non-verbal communication, creativity, networking, negotiation, time management, and intercultural competence. They are also coached on employment opportunities, including where to find job offers and how to apply.

After their training, participants receive a cash grant to help them secure raw materials such as quality seeds or farm tools. Since 2017, close to 11,000 host community members have accessed livelihood opportunities. Likewise, more than 6,000 Rohingya refugees have received self-reliance services.

Thousands of host community members lost their belongings, including vegetable gardens and shelters, in recent floods. Photos: IOM/Mashrif Abdullah Al 

In September 2020, Abul and three of his friends joined forces and resources to launch a co-operative: the auto-rickshaw repair shop “Friends Auto-Rickshaw Servicing Center”. The shop now helps them earn an income and support their families. Abul’s family in particular has been heavily relying on him since his father died. “My four sisters, brother and mother look to me for support.”

Abul’s mother and sisters, just like many other Bangladeshi women, are key household breadwinners, but struggle to secure a job as socio-cultural norms tend to restrict them to limited economic opportunities. This hurdle for women heightens their vulnerabilities and increases the risk of violence and abuse.

Additionally, thousands in Ukhiya and Teknaf sub-districts in Cox’s Bazar lost their income and possessions in devastating floods that have swept the city in recent months, further straining the communities’ livelihoods.

Many of the women participating in the project are now running their own businesses. Photos: IOM/Mashrif Abdullah Al 

Through these projects, IOM also seeks to empower women and help them access household-level livelihood initiatives with potential to meet market demands. With the newly acquired knowledge along with the start-up grants, participants can develop their own individual or group initiatives.

Host community member Jamila struggled for a long time to make ends meet by selling brooms and firewood. After attending a five-day training in poultry faming and receiving her grant, Jamila and five other women from her community opened their own poultry farm, which now helps them support their families.

“Some of them have mentioned that they are confident they are saving money for their children too,” says Sharmin. "They are hoping that once school resumes, they can pay for their tuition so they can further their education.”

As soon as the COVID-19 movement restrictions were lifted, the participants’ hard work paid off. But with the pandemic far from over, the future seems uncertain. “We still have clients, but not as often as before,” Abul says. “However, we are optimistic that our new skills will not go to waste. Cox’s Bazar has always thrived. The tide will come back.”

IOM’s livelihood opportunities for host communities in Cox’s Bazar are possible thanks to the support of USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, and the SAFE Plus project jointly managed by IOM, the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization and currently funded by Global Affairs Canada, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Government of the Netherlands, and the Government of the Kingdom of Sweden.

This story was written by Monica Chiriac, IOM’s Public Information Officer in Cox’s Bazar, Tel: +880 1880 084 048, Email: mchiriac@iom.int