Aspirations to Action: Making the Refugee Compact Work for the Rohingya

In 2015, while millions of people fleeing violence in the Middle East were seeking asylum in Europe, a smaller but equally devastating crisis was under way in South Asia. Over 6,000 Rohingya fleeing Myanmar were left stranded in a maritime “bottleneck” in the Andaman Sea, with Malaysia and Thailand pushing boats back. Malaysia’s deputy minister for home affairs defended the refoulement, saying, “We have to send the right message that they are not welcome here.”

The sheer weight of the 2015 European migration crisis highlighted the broad dissonance among the migration policies of European countries and contributed to the urgency of using diplomatic engagement to tackle large-scale displacements. This crisis served as a backdrop to the 2016 UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants, which culminated in member states’ formal endorsement of a Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) and a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) in 2018.

As the GCR was being negotiated, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing persecution in Myanmar were crossing the border into Bangladesh, providing an immediate test of the compact’s ability to influence refugee responses. But three years after its adoption, provisions outlined in the GCR remain largely unimplemented in Bangladesh, and its ideals remain aspirational.

The Refugee Compact and the Rohingya Response

The GCR provides a blueprint for “predictable and equitable responsibility sharing” to deal with contemporary refugee crises. It outlines a framework for cooperation between states, regional bodies, and humanitarian agencies to safeguard refugee rights, ease pressure on host countries, and find sustainable solutions to displacement. It does so by outlining a broad “program of action,” then developing a country-level response framework that aims to translate that policy into action.

However, despite being endorsed by the government of Bangladesh, the GCR has failed to influence Bangladesh’s policies and practices regarding Rohingya refugees. Four years since these refugees began arriving in Cox’s Bazar, the local humanitarian response continues to be shaped by the host country’s political considerations rather than high-level policy and diplomatic engagement by humanitarian partners.

Bangladesh is still not signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and does not formally recognize the Rohingya as refugees, choosing instead to refer to them as “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals.” In practice, this means the Rohingya occupy a legally ambiguous space in which they have no access to formal judicial systems, are not able to enter the labor market, and cannot send their children to local schools. The absence of formal judicial pathways and limited availability of alternate dispute-resolution mechanisms mean Rohingya individuals have no recourse for the forced evictions and relocation of refugees by Bangladeshi landowners that have become commonplace. Additionally, almost 450,000 refugee children, adolescents, and youth remain deprived of formal education and are at risk of being left behind. Perhaps most glaringly, in a region experiencing rapid development, government restrictions on permanent structures mean refugees continue to live under bamboo and tarpaulin shelters on hill faces prone to landslides and flooding.

A Win-Win?

In a 2018 interview, Volker Türk, former assistant high commissioner for protection at the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and head of the GCR process, described the compact as a way to ensure a “win-win situation” wherein refugees and host countries both benefit. That formulation simply does not add up in Cox’s Bazar. Since 2017, the sub-districts of Teknaf and Ukhiya, where the main refugee camps are, have been overwhelmed by a massive refugee influx and resulting response. Local government offices remain overstretched and under-supported. In terrain acutely vulnerable to climate shocks, including escalating trends of communities displaced by flooding across the southern coast, the long-term environmental impact of mass deforestation around the camps looms ominous.

Extreme weather events provide insight into how mass displacement has deepened existing vulnerabilities in Teknaf and Ukhiya. In 2020, 4.4 million people were displaced in Bangladesh, most of them by extreme weather events. That July, monsoon rains caused massive floods across the region, impacting 21,000 refugees and almost 70,000 Bangladeshis. In the camps, shelters, bridges, and pathways were heavily damaged or destroyed; in the surrounding areas, roads were washed out, infrastructure was heavily damaged, and villages were locked in by rising water. According to the World Bank’s September 2021 Groundswell report, by 2050 up to 13.3 million Bangladeshis will be internally displaced due to climate change—with many likely to migrate or seek refuge in neighboring countries.

A closer look into displacement trends shows that developing countries have both the highest number of displaced persons and host the highest percentage of refugee populations. These are also the countries where hosting refugees often precedes a coherent policy that expands refugee resilience through education, livelihoods, and food-security programming. Increasingly, the humanitarian response has sought to assist both refugees and the communities that host them, but aid organizations simply do not have enough money to go around. While the GCR approach generally comes with a more robust aid package, the refugee response in Bangladesh remains chronically underfunded.

The Urgency of Inclusion and Responsibility Sharing

When it comes to institutionalizing the GCR in Bangladesh, the non-cooperation of the host country and reduced funding are real and pressing concerns—but inaction by donors and the governments they represent have also contributed to the failure. Although responsibility sharing is at the heart of the GCR, in Bangladesh that central tenet has begun to ring hollow. By disproportionately focusing on in-country solutions, the largest share of the responsibility has been placed on the host country. Even as the compact calls for sharing the burden, there are few frameworks and little political will for expanding third-country resettlement and safe return.

In an era of prolonged and frequent displacement, nine out of every ten refugees are being hosted by developing countries. In most cases, as with the Rohingya, they have been unable to go back home or seek third-country resettlement and remain systematically deprived of the right to pursue a better future for themselves and their families. Over the past four years, according to the Bangladeshi government, only a handful of Rohingya refugees have formally been resettled. While part of the issue lies with limited legal recognition of their refugee status—a precondition for resettlement—the West’s refugee ceilings, lack of diplomatic urgency, and increasingly exclusionary refugee policies share in the blame.

At every level of the humanitarian response, refugees remain firmly on the sidelines of decisionmaking. Specifically, as displacement stagnates and some refugees resort to criminal activities to deal with pernicious indebtedness and loss of income, current protection programming and advocacy for a rights-centered approach leave much to be desired. According to humanitarian aid workers interviewed by the authors, part of the problem lies in the formalized procedures that aim to ensure accountability and responsibility sharing between humanitarian actors. Humanitarian-response “clusters,” known as “sectors” in Bangladesh, remain dominated by UN agencies, with other national and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) largely excluded. Reports of coerced Rohingya relocation to the islet of Bhasan Char underscore the dangers of systematically ignoring NGO input in decisionmaking. In November 2021, as relocation of Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char resumed, monitoring by NGOs—whose concerns went largely unaddressed by authorities—pointed to widespread instances of uninformed consent and coercion.

Role of NGOs and the International Community

When it comes to the GCR, NGOs have been actively engaged from the outset. In 2019, the first Global Refugee Forum generated around 1,400 pledges of solidarity with host countries, with NGOs constituting the plurality of pledging entities. Over 300 NGOs submitted pledges individually or collectively—including in partnership with refugee-led organizations, faith-based organizations, governments, private-sector actors, and other stakeholders—and committed to boosting protection capacity, expanding education opportunities, and implementing durable solutions to statelessness.

In Bangladesh, it is not just bigger, well-established NGOs that are being overlooked. Bureaucratic hurdles and financial silos have kept the bulk of humanitarian funding from reaching refugee-led organizations, meaning those at the heart of the crisis are unable to engage with their own host governments directly on questions of refugee policy and practice. Globally, similar trends hold true: of the nearly $30 billion that cycles through the humanitarian system annually, only about 0.05 percent goes to refugee-led organizations—less than $15 million per year.

Future Course of Action

When it comes to the Rohingya response and the future of the GCR more broadly, action should follow words. A recent report by the Danish Refugee Council, Norwegian Refugee Council, and the International Rescue Committee outlines key recommendations to operationalize responsibility sharing, create enabling conditions for implementing the GCR, and improve the quantity and quality of funding. It highlights how donors risk undermining the compact by being constructive abroad and obstructive at home. The externalization of asylum, state-sanctioned pushbacks, funding cuts, and rising anti-refugee sentiment across Europe have collectively weakened the asylum space—and, indeed, strike at the heart of lofty goals of responsibility sharing. For the GCR to remain relevant, this needs to change.

Funding streams also need to be modified to fit the reality on the ground. In a protracted response, flexible, multi-year, non-earmarked funds are key to ensuring changing needs and demands are addressed in a holistic and inclusive fashion that systematically includes national NGOs and civil society organizations.

The impetus for action is undeniable. The GCR was drafted to respond to a new frontier in human displacement, and its mettle will be tested in countries like Bangladesh, where climate change–related displacement is already a present and unavoidable reality.

The GCR is an important document that anticipates the crises to come, but if it is to endure and truly influence the policies of the countries where it is most needed, powerful states should contribute beyond just footing the bill. In tandem with the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, the GCR will then need to fulfill what it promised in 2018: to share the responsibility of our collective future equitably.

Sana Vaidya is a program coordinator and research assistant with the Humanitarian Agenda at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Imrul Islam is the advocacy manager at the Norwegian Refugee Council, Bangladesh. Jacob Kurtzer is the director and senior fellow with the Humanitarian Agenda at CSIS.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Jacob Kurtzer
Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Humanitarian Agenda

Sana Vaidya

Program Coordinator and Research Assistant, Humanitarian Agenda

Imrul Islam

Advocacy Manager, the Norwegian Refugee Council, Bangladesh