Four Years On: An Update on the Rohingya Crisis

Four years after being forcibly displaced by the Myanmar military, 900,000 Rohingya refugees remain in Bangladesh, with no solution in sight. The February coup d’etat in Myanmar has made the prospect of safe, voluntary return to Rakhine State untenable. Meanwhile, in Cox’s Bazar, where the Rohingya live in temporary settlements spread across 34 camps, conditions have deteriorated with each passing year.

Extreme weather, multiple fires, and a rise in crime have left the Rohingya refugees on edge. According to aid agencies, programming has been hampered by an overall attenuation of humanitarian space, including access restrictions and arduous bureaucratic barriers to operations. Since the first Covid-19 cases were reported in May 2020, the camps have been put under rolling lockdowns, further curtailing humanitarian presence at a time of heightened need. With each passing year, host-refugee relations have also deteriorated. Social cohesion assessments, most recently conducted jointly by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Dhaka University, and the International Rescue Committee (IRC), reveal rising tensions between refugee and host communities that have been further amplified by Covid-19.

As the response moves into its fifth year, it is important for stakeholders not to lose sight of the goal. Most refugees want to go home, and the Rohingya are no different. The goal of humanitarian organizations, too, is to “work themselves out of a job,” where the need for emergency assistance is transformed—quite intentionally—into self-reliance. But while voluntary and safe repatriation to Myanmar remains the goal, it is unlikely to happen soon. It is now up to all stakeholders who are working to support the Rohingya and host communities to contemplate what the next few years of this protracted displacement crisis will look like. Two factors will influence the path forward: identifying fault lines in the current response, and engagement on interim, ameliorative steps to ensure both refugees and the host community are adequately supported.

Fault Lines in Response

Cox’s Bazar, the district where Rohingya refugee settlements are located, is a beach town that has long been a popular tourist destination. In recent years, the Bangladesh Economic Zones Authority (BEZA) has designated several special economic zones across the country that aim to increase development, attract foreign investment, and boost industry; these zones include areas in the Cox’s Bazar District. A new railway line connecting Cox’s Bazar to Dhaka, set to open in 2022, is also projected to increase tourism—both foreign and domestic—to the region.

But in the sub-districts of Teknaf and Ukhiya, where the refugee camps lie, the benefits of development continue to evade refugees and the immediate Bangladeshi host community. According to a 2018 United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report, Cox’s Bazar had higher levels of illiteracy and infant mortality compared to the rest of the country.In communities dependent almost entirely on agriculture, headcount poverty was at 42 percent. Economic vulnerabilities, not just of refugees but the Bangladeshi host community, have put pressure on the humanitarian response to include host communities in programming.

The refugee response in Cox’s Bazar is shaped by an annual Joint Response Plan (JRP)—a product of bilateral negotiations between the United Nations and the Bangladeshi government—that outlines strategic objectives and funding needs for the year. Since 2018, the JRP has consistently emphasized protection and support to both refugees and host communities, and analysis of the plan’s objectives from 2018 to today shows a gradual shift from purely humanitarian programming to a more development-focused approach.

In practice, however, preparedness and protection have taken a backseat to a response that has stumbled from one emergency to the next. The scale of emergencies, too, has been amplified by the lack of permanent structures within the camps, mandated by government regulations. Across hills dotted by bamboo and tarpaulin shelters, year after year, monsoons have deteriorated camp conditions and precipitated urgent appeals to rebuild shelters, water and sanitation facilities, and basic infrastructure. Preparedness is made harder by the terrain of the region, where temporary shelters are built on steep hills prone to landslides and flash floods.

Part of the problem also lies with the coordination mechanism. The Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) and the Office of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) coordinate through a hybrid model, but policy seems increasingly dictated by the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry rather than informed by the needs and realities of refugees and Bangladeshis in the district. In the absence of a principled and cohesive humanitarian voice to guide the overall response, concrete policy decisions are difficult to achieve and the transition to longer-term planning is made even more improbable.

Donors too, share part of the responsibility. While political goodwill is important in refugee responses, funding is critical. Thus far, comprehensive programming has been impacted by funding, which has declined in recent years. While the first JRP in 2018 was 72 percent fulfilled, the most recent 2021 JRP remains only 34 percent funded, working out to approximately 99 cents per refugee per day.

Since the launch of the 2021 JRP, the United States has pledged an additional $155 million to the response in the region, bringing its total contribution to the Rohingya crisis to $1.3 billion since 2017. It remains the largest donor to the response, followed by the United Kingdom, the European Union, and Japan. However, the international donor community continues to fail to engage the Bangladeshi government on key advocacy issues relating to education, access, relocation of refugees to Bhasan Char —a small island in the Bay of Bengal—and the lack of comprehensive protection programming.

With compounding vulnerabilities straining an already underfunded approach, the Rohingya refugee response in Bangladesh is at an inflection point. The onus is now on the humanitarian community, donors, and the government of Bangladesh to coordinate a long-term strategy informed by evidence and need.

Social Cohesion: An Interim, Ameliorative Path Forward

In displacement responses, social cohesion remains an important—albeit underfunded—area of programming, especially in contexts where often-traumatized communities have sought refuge in areas where the immediate host community is already suffering insecurities of its own. The available research indicates that by minimizing disparities, avoiding polarization, and increasing public confidence in policies and institutions related to migration, refugees and host communities can be an economic and social asset to each other.

Recent assessments in Cox’s Bazar reveal that tensions remain between refugees and the host community regarding access to land and the labor market, as well as the impact of refugee settlements on the local environment. Further, a forthcoming report by the NRC, IRC, and Dhaka University reveals that Covid-19 has magnified differences and misgivings between refugees and the host community. Over one year of rolling lockdowns, many (in both communities) have lost jobs and access to livelihoods. As a result of these interlinked, compounding factors, host-refugee relationships have suffered. However, findings are nuanced—while some host community members oppose the presence of refugees, a much larger portion of respondents are either supportive, ambivalent, or balanced in their views.

While earlier JRPs included language and funding for social cohesion programming, the most recent JRP does not. The government of Bangladesh, too, has recently voiced opposition to social cohesion, highlighting that integrative programming might prove to be an impediment to swift repatriation back to Rakhine. However, this seems to be a miscommunication. The aims of refugees, aid agencies, and the host government are aligned; all stakeholders want the Rohingya to be able to return to Myanmar. While conditions for safe return remain untenable, social cohesion programming is an interim, constructive step forward to ensure the conditions in which refugees and host Bangladeshis are currently living are made more bearable for as long as the Rohingya remain displaced.

Education policy is an area of focus that could jump-start social cohesion programming, seeing as it demonstrates a broad alignment in goals of key stakeholders. The Bangladeshi government and aid agencies want to implement Myanmar-based curricula for refugees, with agencies advocating for some vocational training for refugees in anticipation of reintegration back in Rakhine. While rollout of these programs has been delayed for over one year by the pandemic, vaccination drives across the country and in the refugee camps mean it might soon be safe enough for these programs to start.

Some refugee responses have also benefitted from incorporating humanitarian, peacebuilding, and developmental programming to expand opportunities and reduce perceived “preference” to one community. A new World Bank commitment of $590 million aims to do just that. The grant, backed by a review conducted by the UN Refugee Agency, is aimed at supporting the Bangladeshi government in its response by addressing issues such as health, informal education, water and sanitation, and basic infrastructure, including climate-resilient roads, solar streetlights, and disaster preparedness needs of both the displaced Rohingya and host communities in Cox’s Bazar. However, the Bangladeshi government has voiced strong opposition to any programming that might distract from its main goal—repatriation.

In prolonged displacement settings, responsibility sharing for refugees is essential and at this juncture, there are two paths forward. In one, the response continues its current ad-hoc approach, with shrinking operational space, and an erosion of trust between all stakeholders. In the other, UN agencies, the Bangladeshi government, and international and national NGOs coordinate a strategic multi-year approach that decreases aid dependency, prioritizes social cohesion, and merges humanitarian with developmental programming. Adopting this inclusive approach can improve the lives of refugees and host communities now and into the future.

Sana Vaidya is a temporary 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

Temporary Research Assistant, Humanitarian Agenda

Imrul Islam

Advocacy Manager, Norwegian Refugee Council, Bangladesh