Since 25 August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees have fled violence and persecution in Rakhine State, Myanmar. Over a million are now displaced in Bangladesh causing a major humanitarian crisis.
Housed in overcrowded camps without adequate assistance or protection, their status as refugees is not recognised and they enjoy few rights or freedoms. The monsoon and cyclone seasons are also causing landslides and the destruction of shelters and services.
One year on since the latest crisis outbreak, three of our experts offer their insights and recommendations on the long-term solutions needed for what will likely be a protracted crisis.
Cox’s Bazar – a district hosting the largest refugee camp in the world, and home to most of the Rohingya refugees who fled last year – is no stranger to humanitarian crises given its high poverty rates and vulnerability to tropical cyclones.
As a result, local organisations have the capacity to help the Rohingya in some important ways – and this has since been bolstered by international responders. What many of these internationals bring are the specific skills and resources necessary to meet the needs of a refugee crisis and at scale.
Despite this, many needs remain unmet, especially those related to legal protection, gender-based violence and mental health support. These gaps in the response are partly a consequence of national and international actors working in parallel, rather than in coordination. An uneasy coexistence now operates between separate UN-led and state-led coordination structures.
Each of these groups has access to different resources and coordination mechanisms but suffer from low levels of trust with each other. They are divided by different standards, ways of working, relationships, and often language. Above all, they are divided by political goals.
For Bangladesh, many in the host community and some local NGOs, relief to the Rohingya must be short term as swift repatriation is a priority. Conversely, international responders stress the need for the adoption of longer-term approaches including cash distribution to support education services and livelihood programmes.
But these activities are either prohibited or limited by restrictions in the camps on building, humanitarian access and refugees’ freedom to leave for work.
Filling the response gaps to better meet needs will depend on lifting these restrictions, which are currently stopping both local and international actors working effectively. Only then can the humanitarian community harness the capacity of all responders in Bangladesh.
As the displacement of Rohingya refugees becomes protracted, humanitarian responders must adopt more culturally sensitive approaches to uphold refugees’ dignity.
As our new research shows, for the Rohingya dignity is a social concept. It relies on the entire community being treated equally and respectfully. Yet, as with any humanitarian response with limited resources, not all Rohingya receive the same assistance. The camps near Kutupalong, for example, receive more humanitarian attention than those further south, such as Leda and Nayapara. Poor treatment in queues, such as inappropriate greetings, rude language or even being beaten with sticks, is also common and significantly undermines their dignity.
Dignity also means the freedom for Rohingya to practice their religion and for women to practice purdah – covering their bodies and staying in their homes. But latrines are in shared blocks, which force women and men to wait in joint queues and use latrines without privacy. Aid distribution queues are often combined, which again result in men and women waiting in joint queues rather than allowing women to collect aid first and return to their homes as quickly as possible.
Finally, dignity has an economic meaning for the Rohingya: they feel most dignified when they can support their families and are not dependent on aid. Families who are self-reliant and can afford for women to stay at home and maintain purdah are respected in the community, but there are few opportunities for refugees to generate an economic livelihood.
Here are three ways the humanitarian community can make their response more dignified:
- ensure that aid organisations and their partners treat the Rohingya respectfully in distribution queues and, as much as possible, that all camps receive the same amount of assistance
- separate men and women’s latrine blocks, improve privacy in and around latrines and organise separate distribution queues for men and women
- advocate for the Government of Bangladesh to ease work restrictions on the Rohingya, and provide opportunities for them to support themselves through formal and informal employment.
The displacement of Rohingya refugees will likely be protracted. The constrained policy environment in Bangladesh, the absence of any realistic prospect of safe and voluntary return and the lack of political progress to resolve the crisis in Myanmar all suggest a long-term response is needed. I argued back in March that operational organisations, donors and the government of Bangladesh need to prepare for the impact of long-term displacement.
Yet as different groups discuss what a long-term response could look like, it is important to remember that the roots of the crisis rest firmly in Myanmar. Any approach focusing on Bangladesh alone will not resolve the crisis.
The potential elements of a longer-term response such as resettlement or concessional financing (for example grants or loans with favourable terms) are more likely to gain traction in Bangladesh if there is meaningful progress in Myanmar. This means addressing issues around citizenship, justice, and accountability – politically charged as they are – to have the chance of a long-term solution.
At the heart of any long-term solution must be the voices, views and aspirations of Rohingya people themselves. If it is to garner community acceptance, Rohingya must have a meaningful part of it. This includes the Rohingya who remain in Myanmar, as well as the refugees who have fled in the past year – and the decades before that.