Fading Humanitarianism: The Dangerous Trajectory of the Rohingya Refugee Response in Bangladesh

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The February 1 military coup and subsequent brutal crackdown in Myanmar have led to hundreds of deaths and the displacement of tens of thousands of people, raising concerns about further atrocities and a growing humanitarian and displacement crisis. Observers have warned of a Syria-like scenario in which prolonged conflict leads to state collapse and widespread suffering with regional implications. Donors, diplomats, and aid agencies must continue to pressure the Myanmar junta to end atrocities and must prepare for the humanitarian fall out. However, this should not distract from the imperative to provide refuge to those who have already fled the horrors of the Myanmar military. Yet this is exactly what is happening with the Rohingya in Bangladesh.
Most of the nearly 900,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh fled genocidal attacks by the Myanmar military in 2017. The February 1 coup has both distracted international attention from their conditions and greatly diminished the already low prospects of their safe and voluntary return to Myanmar. While the coup has not led to large-scale displacement along the Myanmar–Bangladesh border to date, shifting dynamics amid the deteriorating conditions in Myanmar
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could quickly lead to increased outflows of Rohingya and other groups. Bangladesh has already increased border patrols and turned back at least 100 Rohingya.
The government of Bangladesh has taken on an immense challenge in hosting more than 860,000 Rohingya refugees over the past three and a half years. The country deserves great credit for this effort. However, Bangladesh has restricted refugee rights from the beginning, and conditions for Rohingya in Bangladesh were deteriorating well before the coup. A mix of factors including the COVID-19 pandemic, monsoons, fires, and criminal violence have strained an already challenging humanitarian response. Pandemic restrictions have limited important services including shelter repair, psycho-social support, and gender-based violence (GBV) prevention and response activities. In addition, the government of Bangladesh has adopted an increasingly securitized approach to Rohingya refugees, which has exacerbated these challenges. Despite the coup, Bangladesh continues to insist on near-term repatriation for the Rohingya.
A stark example of the ways that Bangladeshi policies are making Rohingya more vulnerable is a massive fire that broke out on March 22, 2021. Barbed wire fencing constructed by the authorities around the refugee camps hindered escape and slowed efforts to contain the blaze. Several people died in the fire, thousands of shelters were damaged, and nearly 50,000 people were displaced. Attempts by UN agencies to “Build Back Safer” with measures to prevent similar quick spread of fires and to improve access to services have been delayed by a slow government response and may no longer be possible.
Similarly, the movement of refugees to Bhasan Char, an isolated island in the Bay of Bengal, reflects the shift toward a policy more akin to detention than refuge. Bangladesh has yet to allow independent assessments of the island. Questions remain about how voluntary the initial movement of refugees to the Bhasan Char has been. Meanwhile, the ongoing restrictions on livelihood and education opportunities in the camps are getting worse as Bangladeshi authorities threaten to crack down on even the limited paid volunteer opportunities available to residents.
Shifts in government authority and lines of responsibility from the national level to the camp level are also creating new obstacles for humanitarian workers. Visa and project approvals have become increasingly difficult to obtain. Humanitarian officials have fewer clear interlocutors within the government, making it more difficult to address everyday issues that arise within the camps. The Bangladeshi officials that head sections of the camps, the Camps-in-Charge (CiCs) have gained greater autonomy over project approvals, making it more difficult for humanitarian officials to implement projects across camps.
The government has also taken on a more aggressive and restrictive stance at the top levels of planning for the humanitarian response. This was seen in contentious negotiations between the government and UN agencies around the latest Joint Response Plan (JRP), the document that provides a roadmap used to match donor funding with humanitarian needs. The 2021 plan was finally launched on May 18, but was greatly slimmed down from previous plans, leaving out details on several critical services such as narrowing the scope of activities to combat gender-based violence. It also failed to mention the coup and the resulting reduced prospects for repatriation. While having an agreed upon roadmap of humanitarian needs is essential and should be fully funded, donor countries must be increasingly diligent in monitoring and
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consulting implementing partners and beneficiaries to ensure gaps in services do not arise due to the less detailed JRP. Donors must be prepared to press Bangladeshi officials if such gaps are identified. More immediately, donors must push back on the increased restrictions and closing of humanitarian space and ensure that their significant funding—amounting to some USD $2.4 billion since 2017—is being used effectively and not taken for granted.
Finally, government policies and restrictions are holding back efforts to better inform and engage the Rohingya refugees themselves. The latter remain largely left out of decisions affecting their everyday lives. Failure to empower refugees and to offer them education, livelihoods, and other opportunities to build their self-reliance will only push the community further into despair.
Bangladesh cannot be alone in shouldering responsibility for the Rohingya. International pressure must remain on Myanmar both to address the immediate coup-driven crisis and for a longer-term solution for Rohingya and other refugees. In the meantime, UN agencies and governments must offer responsibility-sharing measures to ease the burden on Bangladesh and incentivize a more protection-centered approach. Such measures should include further development, trade, and investment incentives as well as offers of third country resettlement. While Bangladesh has resisted such measures in the past, the new reality of the coup may offer an opening for reconsideration.

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