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Governing at the Margins: A Patchwork of Policies and Practices in the Rohingya Refugee Response in Bangladesh

Six years after the forced displacement of over a million Rohingya people from Myanmar, the day-to-day support required by Rohingya refugees and humanitarian actors in Bangladesh remains a challenge for the country’s government.

This report analyses the policymaking environment surrounding the Rohingya refugee response in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Support has been provided by the Bangladesh government and its key aid partners have supported the response for decades, with the numbers of refugees increasing rapidly following mass atrocities committed by the Myanmar military against Rohingya in Rakhine State in 2017. In 2022, the Centre for Peace and Justice, BRAC University in partnership with The Asia Foundation, undertook an analysis of governance and decision-making surrounding the refugee response, with a particular focus on the sporadic and often opaque ways that refugee camp policies are developed and communicated to camp residents. The research unearthed an ‘ad hoc’ system of governance mechanisms used by the Bangladesh government, and their uneven implementation, which have significant impacts on the everyday lives of refugees and on the work of humanitarian responders.

In emergency refugee contexts, especially without comprehensive domestic laws, states often develop new guidelines and rules to respond to the crisis at hand, and Bangladesh is not an exception. However, without comprehensive domestic legislation on refugee matters, policy directives, a conventional tool of governing in Bangladesh, have been used to patch together a governance framework and operational guidelines. As a result, policies are often developed in response to emerging political priorities or specific events. They may be unevenly applied in different contexts, giving rise to ‘grey areas’ or inequities for people living and working in camps. In addition, the improvised response gives the refugee context a sense of temporariness.

This report contributes towards filling a vital gap in publicly available research and analysis on refugee governance in Bangladesh—particularly as it reflects the perspectives and experiences of Rohingya refugees themselves. Insights are drawn from desk-based research, a review of available policy directives, and interviews with Rohingya refugees and individuals working on the refugee response in Bangladesh.

The findings indicate that the ad hoc approach to governance stems from a combination of three factors: firstly, the absence of a domestic law on refugees; secondly, the government’s firm stance on repatriation as the only long-term solution for the Rohingya people in Bangladesh; and thirdly, reactionary decision-making and uneven implementation of directives. A key takeaway is that this system in Bangladesh is neither inherently good nor bad—after all, these makeshift policies and practices sustain the lives of almost a million Rohingya refugees amidst very limited resources. That said, some directives, especially those abrupt in their implementation and restrictive in nature, leave refugees in a state of confusion and, at times, have detrimental impacts on their lives.

There is no quick and easy solution to the protracted situation, though it is clear that the ad hoc approach may not be sufficient to govern such a vast humanitarian response in the long run and could risk deepening tensions in the refugee camps. A more coherent system founded on greater responsibility-sharing across all stakeholders involved in the refugee response, and one that guarantees rights for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh through a domestic law, is urgently needed as the refugee response enters its seventh year since 2017’s mass displacement from Myanmar.