2018 Safety, Security and International Affairs

Hoa Thi Tran, Ph.D. and the Team

Delivered emergency humanitarian relief to nearly 700,000 Rohingya refugees who fled violent persecution in Burma to find safe haven in neighboring Bangladesh

During a six-month period starting in August 2017, nearly 700,000 members of the Rohingya ethnic minority fled from Burma into neighboring Bangladesh to escape a military campaign of violence and persecution. Traumatized men, women and children were crowded into makeshift refugee camps without adequate food, shelter or medical care, creating a desperate humanitarian crisis. 

As this crisis unfolded, Hoa Tran, the Asia team lead in the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, and her team, analyzed the refugees’ needs and in September 2017 quickly secured $32 million in emergency aid. Through nonstop communications and persistence, Tran and her team—Jennifer Cole, the program officer for South Asia, and Elizabeth Biermann de Lancie, a Foreign Service Officer who had prior experience in Burma—secured $47 million in additional assistance by November 2017.  

The U.S. humanitarian help, and the meticulous way the team made sure it was delivered, saved countless lives and prevented disease outbreaks among the beleaguered Rohingya refugees, a Muslim minority living in Burma’s western state of Rakhine.

“Hoa’s team was outstanding in responding so quickly to one of the most dramatic forced migration crises in the past few decades,” said Mark Storella, a deputy assistant secretary of state. “The speed of the team’s response translated directly to lives saved.”

Tran and her colleagues worked in an intense environment knowing that “people were dying and arriving in Bangladesh with horrific wounds and in desperate conditions,” said Monique Ramgoolie, deputy director of the State Department’s Office of Assistance for Asia and the Near East. “They were in urgent need of medical assistance, shelter and protection.” 

Aid responses are rarely this immediate, but Tran and her team overcame many hurdles to make relief dollars flow quickly. The sheer number of refugees was overwhelming, Bangladesh had few resources of its own to deal with the crisis, and there were disputes about which international organization would coordinate the relief effort.

Working with local contacts and in coordination with the U.S. embassy, Tran and her team supported the Bangladesh government’s response to the humanitarian crisis, including encouraging close coordination with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other organizations to ensure refugee protection and effective management of the crisis. The result, Storella said, “is a much more effective team working in Bangladesh.”

Securing the funding was another challenge. When an emergency such as the Rohingya crisis hits, the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration must decide whether to tap into its emergency funds to help. 

“The level of analysis and consultation that Hoa’s team put into recommendations was impressive,” Ramgoolie said. “Hoa highlighted the crisis as a priority issue and garnered the support needed to move money quickly.”

Tran helped define core principles for the humanitarian response, which were quickly adopted as part of the U.S. approach. She also engaged key congressional staffers and prepared State Department leaders for hearings to reinforce support on Capitol Hill.

Another hurdle involved gathering accurate information about what was happening on the ground. Tran’s team worked around-the-clock to analyze the available information. Cole was sent to Bangladesh for five weeks to monitor, evaluate and work with the government, and to bear witness to the terrible atrocities the refugees faced. Given Biermann de Lancie’s previous experience in Burma, Tran relied on her to provide analysis on the conditions there.

“Every time you have a new crisis, you have to understand what the rules of the road are, how that particular crisis unfolded,” Ramgoolie said. “Hoa brought together people with different levels of expertise and worked closely with them to develop a strategic framework and guidance. She was a constant resource to the team and external actors.”  

Tran and her parents came to the United States from Vietnam in 1975 when she was seven years old, and her difficult experiences as a youngster left her with a passion to help refugee children.

“When I see the suffering of children, it just tears me apart,” she said. “I feel that I have to do something.” The majority of Rohingya refugees in the Bangladesh camps are children.

Tran and her team continue to call attention to the ongoing crisis and work closely with State Department desk officers and USAID to make sure the humanitarian effort is coordinated with diplomatic initiatives. But her team’s initial work was the most critical.

“Hoa pushed the government to move rapidly because people’s lives were at stake,” said Nancy Izzo-Jackson, a deputy assistant secretary of state. “She and her team operated so well and so efficiently in an extremely high-pressure environment.”