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Five years of Rohingya influx: Seeking sustainable solutions

August 28, 2022 Mohammad Azizul Hoque and Tasnuva Ahmad, Research Associate, CPJ, BRAC University

The Rohingya crisis is not a new story. Five years on, neither Myanmar nor the international community has taken any worthwhile action to address either atrocity or the ongoing repression against the Rohingya is at the rootstock of delays in safe repatriation. The widely discussed “repatriation” seems to have become a Gordian Knot – one that is compounded by various political and ethnocentric propaganda. Concurrently, the drastic reduction of foreign aid has increased tensions in Bangladesh and its ability to respond to the crisis. It seems as though the international community is gradually moving away from its responsibility toward the Rohingya humanitarian response. In this article, we explain why it’s time for Bangladesh and humanitarian actors to adopt a youth-focused and community-driven approach to designing durable solutions to the crisis.

Before going into the details, let us take stock of the various concerns and questions unfolding in the region since 2017. Today, Bangladesh hosts nearly one million Rohingya refugees – a population greater than many countries, like Bhutan, Maldives, or many European countries. While the initial mass displacement and years were met with hospitality, matters and perceptions on the ground have since seen major shifts. Public perceptions among Rohingya and host communities alike are becoming increasingly negative. Communities are angered by the seeming inertia and lack of effort from global powers to find solutions and accelerate safe repatriation. Despite the political mayhem in Myanmar, Bangladesh seems to remain resolutely optimistic about convincing its neighbour about Rohingya repatriation. Realities on the ground hardly support this optimism. Government authorities are frequently changing their policies, which are mostly aimed at temporary solutions, as the government remains concerned that some activities may discourage repatriation. As such, the government continues to be reluctant about formally extending opportunities to the Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar.

Photo captured by, Abdullah, Rohingya Volunteer

The decline of humanitarian aid is also adding insult to injury. The international community has shifted its attention to evolving crises, for instance – the war in Ukraine, the Afghanistan crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic and so on. According to the Joint Response Plan (JRP), humanitarian funding needs met ranged between 72-75 per cent of the total requirement in the first three years of the response. This share dropped to 65 per cent in 2020. Until July 2021, US$ 366 million has been disbursed, which is only about 34 per cent of the required amount of about US$ 1 billion. Now the question remains, if humanitarian funding continues to decline, how will the nearly one million Rohingyas be supported in Bangladesh?

Youth are the majority in the camps – about 52 per cent, and adults account for about 44 per cent of the camp population. If provided the right opportunities, the youth would be incredible resources for the economic development in Cox’s Bazar. In reality, however, their potential remains unutilised. Instead, the circumstances are such that the youth facing insurmountable financial hurdles have to pursue a range of strategies, including accruing debt, selling food rations, competing for limited volunteer opportunities, or engaging themselves in riskier activities to cover their household expenses. “Band-aid” policies that look at the short-term limit the youth’s educational and skills development and, more generally, their livelihood opportunities. While it’s difficult to imagine the consequences of keeping thousands of people in a fenced patch of land without work for years, the immense loss of individual potential is obvious.

Considering the protracted nature of the crisis and the drastic decline in aid, policies and response efforts should now focus on durable solutions and strategies. Strengthening initiatives for youth and women will be especially important to foster peace and prosperity in Cox’s Bazar. Following are some areas that could stimulate and potentially contribute to the way forward for the region.

First, address the local needs and build on the existing strengths of the host community and Rohingya people. Both the host community and Rohingya are adept in agriculture, handicraft, fishing, cattle farming, dairy farm, and carpentering. Some of these activities require sufficient flat land, which is scarce in the hilly areas of Cox’s Bazar. Innovative agricultural processes and solutions could be a potential area to be explored. In general, there is a need for more comprehensive research and community feedback to design such skills and livelihood development programmes. Engaging in productive work will sharpen skills and help the Rohingya resettle in Myanmar after safe repatriation. Beyond this, being able to work can also contribute to people’s sense of dignity and possibilities.

Second, targeted programs for youth and women from Rohingya and host communities will be essential. About 75 per cent of adult Rohingya women are uneducated and lack employment opportunities. Constraints include lack of access, discriminatory norms, and conservative practices. Many Rohingya youths are sailing to Malaysia to seek better fortunes. Education, training, and livelihood programmes responsive to the lived realities may help promote opportunities for Rohingya women. For instance, home-based training and work opportunities could improve access to women and address harmful coping mechanisms, such as child marriage or involvement in dangerous activities. Livelihood opportunities will be central to promoting regional security and stability going forward. Skill development training will also be critical to meeting the emerging needs of modern industrial sectors, for instance, the garments and the food and agriculture industry in the region.

Additionally, drawing examples from global practice would be beneficial for our policymakers. Bangladesh should gather some lessons from other countries hosting refugees. Bangladesh could explore ways to support refugee and host community livelihoods. For example, the international community is supporting Venezuelan refugees in Colombia through entrepreneurship training aimed at social cohesion, how Turkey hosts Syrian refugees, and how Jordan has allowed Syrian refugees to formally work in selected sectors.

It is high time we re-assess the needs of the Rohingya and host community people and start planning long-term. Thinking long term, revising plans, and taking initiatives based on ground realities can bring much-needed changes to the Rohingya response in Bangladesh. Increased humanitarian support and renewed regional and global political discussions are needed to untangle this supposedly Gordian Knot.

Disclaimer: All views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors based on their analysis of empirical findings and do not represent the position of any affiliated organisations.

This blog was originally published in The Business Standard on Thursday, August 25, 2022