Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar’s western Rakhine State in a catastrophic and growing refugee crisis. The creative advertising firm Ogilvy has partnered with BRAC (Building Resources Across Communities) to make a difference. This month Natalie Lyall, Group Publishing Director at Ogilvy, describes Ogilvy’s efforts to draw global attention to this crisis.
Parvati Magazine: The migration of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar has made international news. But the headlines do not really tell the whole story. What do you think most people don’t realize about this situation?
Natalie Lyall: The Rohingya have endured institutionalized discrimination for decades, but in the wake of extreme violence in August 2017, over 700,000 people were forced to flee their homes. The UN finally declared earlier this year that it was a textbook case of ethnic cleansing. I also believe that people are unaware of the vast number of children involved. Over 500,000 of the total refugee population are children and more than 200,000 are under 12. These youngsters are traumatized from witnessing unspeakable atrocities. Many have seen family members attacked or killed and thousands are living in the camps without a parent, in an environment where they are particularly vulnerable to trafficking and other forms of exploitation.
Parvati Magazine: How well equipped is Bangladesh to accommodate the Rohingyas fleeing Myanmar?
Natalie Lyall: Bangladesh is already one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with deep poverty they need to address for their own people. Yet despite that, they have taken in nearly all of the refugees. What was once a small fishing village is now accommodating the largest refugee camp in the world. This has created immense challenges for the host nation.
We partnered with BRAC, a non-government organization founded in 1972 and based in Bangladesh. They are the main on-ground responder for the crisis and have done an extraordinary job providing emergency services and now comprehensive healthcare, education and skills development for the Rohingya, as well as managing their programmes for the local community.
Parvati Magazine: What are the biggest challenges in providing humanitarian aid in a situation like this?
Natalie Lyall: The first logistical nightmare was the clearing of five thousand acres of forest and installing an infrastructure able to cater for nearly a million people. They had to build access roads, temporary shelters, water points and sanitation facilities. Medical centres were required and mobile teams for large-scale immunization. Then to make an already desperate situation worse, the monsoon rains have made it necessary to regularly relocate people to higher ground and rebuild shelters and facilities. This all requires a huge budget.
Parvati Magazine: Ogilvy developed an ad concept that features children sharing their message on an airborne television. How did you come up with this concept and what was it like to execute?
Natalie Lyall: We knew we had to create a compelling concept that would truly shake people out of their bystander apathy and refocus attention on the plight of the Rohingya. It is our job as advertisers to make the strongest case possible for why sitting on the sidelines is not an option.
The refugees are still all squashed into an overpopulated camp with deteriorating conditions and no solution in sight. We wanted to give these children a voice. So we came up with a unique way of helping them take their message to the edge of space, where they could finally be heard above the racket on earth. Their plea is a simple one. Surely on a planet as huge as ours, there must be a space they can call home. This was a logistically challenging and emotionally draining shoot. We were in the camp for nearly two weeks of filming. We hired weather balloon specialists who managed against all the odds to launch the tv into space. But it was an immense privilege to spend time with the Rohingya children, who despite the horrors they have endured, remain cheerful, courageous, curious, and hopeful.
Parvati Magazine: What can people do to make a difference?
Natalie Lyall: It would be amazing if your readers would consider donating at response.brac.net – every cent helps. And please share the film to keep the world from forgetting these people barely surviving in their bamboo and plastic shelters, perched on a crumbling deforested hillside with very little to look forward to. We all deserve better than that. We all deserve a space on earth that we can call home.
Natalie Lyall is a veteran of advertising who currently heads Marketing and Business Development for Ogilvy Asia. She has won awards for creative work, communications, PR, marketing and the prestigious WPP Atticus, and in her spare time has produced three London West-End musicals.