Authors: Arslan Sheikh and Réka Szabó - Human Security Team
More than 700,000 Rohingya - half of them children - were compelled to escape their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and seek refuge in the neighbouring district of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh due to armed assaults, widespread violence, and severe violations of human rights in August 2017. Although Bangladesh is one of the world’s most densely populated countries, it is currently home to the largest and continuously expanding refugee settlement globally. The settlement consists of over thirty camps and now accommodates more than 920,000 Rohingya.
The Rohingya, a Muslim minority group in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, have faced discrimination, persecution, and violence for several decades. Despite living in a country where the majority are Buddhists, the Rohingya are not considered an official ethnic group and have been denied citizenship since 1982.
The reasons for the statelessness of the Rohingya date back to the British colonial times. The reasoning of the Myanmar government for not providing the minority with citizenship today is that the Rohingya did not belong to the population of the state in the period before 1824, the first Anglo-Burmese war. When Myanmar (then Burma) gained separate administration from British India in 1937, the territory where most of the Rohingya lived, was not demarcated, and when then Burma gained independence from British rule in 1948, the Rohingya were subjected to exclusionary citizenship laws. This has resulted in them being one of the largest stateless populations in the world.
The Evolution of Humanitarian Aid to Rohingya
The Rohingya refugee crisis from 2017 was not the first one in the history of Bangladesh. Multiple times in 1978, 1990s, 2007, and 2012, the Rohingya were forced to leave their homeland because of conflict and instability in Myanmar, and they sought refuge in Bangladesh. This means that the people and authorities were not completely inexperienced when the crisis broke out in 2017. However, the actions that took place in order to ameliorate the situation of the hundreds of thousands of refugees, transformed and became more organized and large-scale.
During the first month of the crisis, the support in Cox Bazar was spontaneous and came from Bangladeshi individuals, groups, and local businesses. They helped with money, food delivery, shelter, clothes, and other necessities. After this, more international actors in cooperation with the government, army, and UN agencies took up most of the humanitarian work in a more coordinated way.
Several NGOs had already been present in Bangladesh since the 1970s and 1980s. These organizations, for instance, Save the Children Fund, Oxfam, and Médecins Sans Frontières, expanded their activities to the refugee camps in Cox Bazar. Several faith-based international NGOs like Islamic Relief and Muslim Aid are also present in the refugee camps. These NGOs provided tents, cooking, and hygiene kits to refugees monitored the construction of water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities, treated dehydration, diseases and injuries, and provided mental health counselling.
Bangladeshi NGOs, however, do not fit in the classical categorization of NGOs anymore as they have gone through transformations during the last decades and now local development NGOs are more specialized in private sector-related activities. For instance, related to microcredit or business development. An example is BRAC, which presents itself as an NGO but also acts as a social enterprise.
The Current Scenario
Despite the coordinated and large-scale efforts of the government and international organizations, the Rohingya in Cox Bazar still live under difficult conditions, with “limited access to clean water, food and basic healthcare”. Women and children make up over 75% of refugees and they encounter elevated risks of gender-based violence, abuse, and exploitation. A majority of the refugees taking shelter in the camps are minors whose future remains uncertain.
These conditions exist due to several reasons. For instance, the so-called localization agenda of the humanitarian sector is not fully implemented. Without effective support and funding to local actors —and the use of their expertise —, humanitarian responses are impeded and unable to assure that the Rohingya receive the maximum support.
The application of the localization agenda in Cox Bazar is also impeded because of the unsuccessful allocation and reduction of funding. Equitable and complementary partnerships between international and local NGOs do not exist either, due to technical and political reasons. For instance, Bangladeshi NGOs and their goals and values are often politicized. As mentioned before, the local organizations cannot necessarily be described as humanitarian which means that they cannot be held accountable for not operating according to the international humanitarian norms.
The decreased funding for refugees has increased their vulnerabilities concerning proper nutrition, shelter materials, sanitation facilities, and livelihood opportunities. Despite committed humanitarian efforts, 45% of the refugee families do not get a proper diet which has made malnutrition a severe challenge to overcome.
Another reason for current conditions is political. The Bangladeshi government considers the influx of Rohingyas a security threat since they connect it with the possible growth of Islamic terrorism and political Islam, smuggling, and drug trafficking in Cox Bazar. This has led to the securitization of the issue, which has severe implications for the life of the Rohingya in Cox Bazar. The government forbade cash-based aid and limited NGO activities in the camps (some faith-based NGOs were also suspended, and the INGOs are also selectively allowed in the country). The rights of the Rohingya refugees are also restricted: they seem to have no refugee rights and are considered illegal immigrants by the Bangladeshi authorities. This means that they are not entitled to access work permits in Bangladesh, leaving them dependent on humanitarian aid. Currently, barbed wire fences surround camps to impede the free movement of the refugees.
The crowded settlement and the fragile materials of the huts – bamboo and plastic – also fail to protect the people from the monsoon rains and fires at Cox Bazar. The last huge fire, which according to investigators, was a planned act of sabotage, took place on the 5th of March 2023. It killed several people and resulted in the displacement of 50,000 refugees.
Currently, the government of Myanmar is not likely to allow the return of the Rohingya. If the government of Bangladesh does not provide them with workers’ rights and take steps to integrate them into society, chances are high that the Rohingya will be forced to stay in the camps of Cox Bazar for a long period.
Authorities, international organizations, and NGOs, therefore, should aspire for more effective cooperation and the promotion of refugee rights so that the living conditions and prospects of almost a million people can improve.