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Recruiting in emergencies: not your typical HR job

20 Aug 2019

Tanya Coombes became a Finance and Human Resources Manager with MSF in August 2017, and soon found herself playing a key role in the unfolding Rohingya refugee crisis

Newly arrived Rohingya wait for their turn to collect building material for their shelters distributed by aid agencies in Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh, Sept. 13, 2017. © AP Photo / Dar Yasin / MSF

Like many other field workers in their first placement with Médecins Sans Frontières, Tanya Coombes wasn’t sure what to expect when she set out to Bangladesh.

But little did the New Zealander know that one of the 21st century’s biggest humanitarian crises was about to unfold – and she would be thrust into the midst of the response.

Following a campaign of violence against Rohingya people in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, during August 2017 more than 700,000 Rohingya fled over the border into the Cox's Bazar district of Bangladesh.

As a Finance and Human Resources Manager, Tanya quickly had to find the right people to support a massive increase in Médecins Sans Frontières humanitarian activities.

In the thick of it

I arrived about two days after the influx started on 25 August,” she explains, “I had my briefing with the person leaving the role… and then things really took off. It was unlike anything I could have prepared myself for.”

Originally trained as a speech and language therapist, Tanya had been in the pharmaceutical industry for 15 years, but had always wanted to try humanitarian work. She hadn’t realised non-medical roles existed, but a chance encounter with a former Médecins Sans Frontières nurse showed her that there was a demand.

Tanya was in the thick of it from her first week. “Recruitment was by far the most immediate need,” she recounts. “experienced emergency field workers were arriving from all over the world to ‘upscale’ medical and water and sanitation activities and construct health centres.

“In the first couple of months at least six clinics were built within one Refugee Camp alone - along with an expansion of activities at the Kutupalong Clinic - and medical and non-medical staff were urgently needed.

Rohingya refugees cross the border into Bangladesh and deal the Monson rains, 18 Sept. 2017. © Antonio Faccilongo / MSF

“Having 700,000 people just descend on your home isn’t easy”

From September to December 2017 Tanya and the team found more than 300 staff. These included doctors, nurses and midwives; but also non-medical staff such as drivers, cleaners, registrars and other support staff.

“We tried to find most people we needed from the local area,” says Tanya. “However the pool of trained medical people was soon exhausted, requiring us to look further afield.”

She adds: “I was so impressed with the people of Cox’s Bazar who mainly embraced the Rohingya and did all they could to support their arrival, giving them food and clothes, for example. For the local people the emergency meant more jobs, but the costs of transport and housing increased dramatically too. Having 700,000 people just descend on your home isn’t easy, and they were remarkable.”

“I was so impressed with the people of Cox’s Bazar who mainly embraced the Rohingya and did all they could to support their arrival, giving them food and clothes."

A privilege to be part of

Tanya was also responsible for managing the arrival of international staff. “We had a transit house that accommodated 10 people in usual circumstances. At one point during the emergency, there were 30 or more people accommodated in the same place. Every available space was used.

Despite exceptionally tough working days during the emergency, Tanya looks back on the experience with pride.

“To this day I feel so privileged to have been a part of the emergency response. I got to see Médecins Sans Frontières at its very best, watching the synergies between medical professionalswater and sanitation expertsepidemiologists, all working together seamlessly.

“The agility of Médecins Sans Frontières to scale up activities so quickly really showed our skills in this area. Where other agencies were still waiting for grants or approvals, our teams were already in action. And I have no doubt that every dollar of donor’s money was going where the need was.”

She concludes: “To live and work with people – 60 nationalities altogether – with a similar worldview was very liberating for me. I am proud at what was accomplished to support the Rohingya community in the most terrible of circumstances.

Rohingya refugees queue for food relief in Bangladesh, 19 Sept 2017. © Antonio Faccilongo / MSF

A continued crisis

Looking to the present, two years on there have been improvements in access to basic healthcare, safe drinking water, and sanitation facilities but these remain insufficient and unevenly distributed.

The headlines have passed, but both the displaced Rohingya and the host community in Bangladesh require longer-term solutions. More support is needed from the international community so all can live in safety, dignity and health.

“The need now in 2019 is different, but no less great,” says Tanya. “Support is still needed to help improve the lives of a community that’s still suffering.”