A year of bringing relief to Rohingya refugees. A year of bringing relief to Rohingya refugees. Photo credit: European Union
The current context to the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh
by Mark Bowden October 2018

In the few weeks between August and October 2017, approximately 600,000 Rohingya people from Myanmar moved into the neighbouring border areas of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. There they joined existing Rohingya communities, bringing the total to 900,000, one of the largest concentrations of refugees in the world. Accommodated in makeshift camps, the Rohingya outnumber the local population by two to one in the two upazilas (administrative areas) of Teknaf and Ukiah. The size of the influx seized global attention and the international response was rapidly escalated to a Level 3 emergency, mobilising the tools and resources required to respond to an emergency of this scale.

Over the past year, the emphasis of humanitarian operations has been to avert further catastrophe. The risk of mass epidemics and outbreaks of diarrheal disease was high as a result of the rapidity and scale of the movement, people’s poor physical and nutritional state, with little access to healthcare or vaccination in Myanmar, and above all the overcrowding in camps located in difficult terrain prone to mudslides. Mass deaths have so far been averted and shelter and basic services have been provided. Given the challenges of scale and time these are no mean achievements.

Over the next year of humanitarian support, the historical, local and national political context within which this major relief operation is taking place will continue to influence coordination structures and create operational constraints. The political imperative within Bangladesh to treat the Rohingya influx as a temporary crisis, with the repatriation of new arrivals as the main goal, limits longer-term planning and infrastructural investment and creates mounting challenges to the protection and wellbeing of the Rohingya population in Bangladesh. The response to the crisis also raises the question how far commitments made at the World Humanitarian Summit and within the Grand Bargain can be met when responding to Level 3 emergencies.

Coordination and localisation

The scale and speed of the expulsion of the Rohingya into Bangladesh put a complex humanitarian crisis at the centre of international attention. In accepting international assistance, the Bangladesh government allowed in large numbers of foreign relief workers from international agencies and NGOs. While Bangladesh has developed effective internal structures for and approaches to the coordination of natural disaster response, it is ill-prepared to deal with a large-scale, internationalised, complex emergency. Emergency structures have focused on local government and the Bangladesh army, and are not well aligned with international coordination structures such as the cluster/sectoral approach of the Humanitarian Country Task Team, nor is there the necessary civil–military coordination structure in place to ensure effective engagement with the military, which is responsible for supervising the importation and logistics of relief supplies.

The political context has added further complexity to the operational challenges involved in the response. While relations between political parties and civil society have always been fraught, the past two years have seen increasing attempts to control and limit the influence of civil society. International NGOs have been treated with equal suspicion. The Foreign Donations (voluntary activities) Regulation Act of 2016 introduced tighter controls on financing and enhanced processes for the registration of NGOs, delaying project approvals, slowing down implementation and severely restricting international engagement with local civil society organisations.

From the outset of the crisis, foreign policy considerations – namely Bangladesh’s desire to see the early repatriation of the Rohingya – played a major role in determining the initial response, and in the development of coordination structures at both national level and in Cox’s Bazar. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has taken the lead in coordinating the government response and in determining the nature of international coordination. Rohingya arrivals are not regarded as refugees, which meant that the International Organization for Migration (IOM), rather than the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), was initially given operational leadership. The coordination structure that developed in the months after the influx began put the focus of operational coordination in the hands of an Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) com-prising Bangladesh government departments, UN agencies and operational NGOs structured around eight sectoral working groups supported and led by a senior coordinator and secretariat based in Cox’s Bazar. National-level guidance to the ISCG is provided by a Strategic Executive Group (SEG) co-chaired by the Resident Coordinator and the heads of IOM and UNHCR. Membership includes UN agencies, international NGOs (INGOs) (BRAC, Action Contre la Faim (ACF), Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and Save the Children) and the Red Cross/
Red Crescent Movement (ICRC and IFRC).

The complexity of this two-tier coordination structure has required strong collaboration between all those involved. However, distinctions between local and national coordination and disparity of support between the two poses a challenge to maintaining the strategic direction and coherence of relief efforts. The withdrawal of the OCHA office at the beginning of the crisis and the lack of designation of a Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) have also left the response without some of the more important coordination tools, including for financial tracking and information management, cluster/sectoral coordination and pooled funding, which would normally support a more strategic approach to coordination and provide the ability to identify gaps in response, deploy pooled funding to support localisation and address key funding gaps. Concerns have been raised over the ‘projectised’ approach inherent in these coordination structures, where local and international NGOs alike feel treated as subcontractors rather than partners. Local NGO participation at the sectoral level is further squeezed by the large number and high turnover of international staff.

While a new NGO platform has been established and a roadmap for localisation is planned, challenges in terms of resource mobilisation, sectoral funding and establishing appropriate and realistic time frames and effective physical and site planning will require strong internal coherence and work across and between sectoral groupings. One way of addressing these challenges would be to look at how best to streamline and develop coordination tools that strike the right balance between strategic and operational coordination and ensure greater coherence through a more programmatic and less project-based response.

Local challenges: protection and local engagement

The first major influx of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh was in 1978, prompting a major relief operation in Cox’s Bazar. While this had many similarities with current efforts, poor conditions and weak organisation resulted in exceptionally high mortality rates. Other major flows of Rohingya into Bangladesh took place in 1990–92, 2012 and 2016. Small numbers of Rohingya have lived in southern Bangladesh for many centuries and speak a similar dialect to the people of Cox’s Bazar. The Rohingya in Bangladesh have been marginalised in local communities and occasionally subject to violent attacks fomented by local politicians. In 1992, the Bangladesh government ruled that no new arrivals should be given refugee status. It also subsequently clamped down on the issuance of national identity cards, confirming the statelessness of the Rohingya people. Cox’s Bazar has a long history of drug smuggling and people trafficking from Myanmar, and the Rohingyas’ precarious legal status has left them open to exploitation by criminals, businessmen and political elites. The Rohingya have been used to undercut local labour rates, rig elections, facilitate land grabbing and act as drug mules.

The recent large-scale movement of Rohingya was not well-received locally, and local journalists interviewed in early 2018 were at pains to point out that the idea that there had been a welcoming local community to greet the arrivals was false. Local resentment and hostility are fuelled by a perception that the presence of the Rohingya is increasing local poverty by forcing down labour rates. The Rohingya are also seen as undeserving of the current levels of food assistance and health services in an area where services to the local population are poor. Local concerns also focus on social differences and fears of radicalisation within camp communities given the Rohingyas’ more conservative approach to Islam. Whether or not these are legitimate concerns, these issues have spilled over into criticism of the international aid response, and international agencies and their staff are blamed for preventing the Rohingyas’ rapid repatriation.

The marginalisation of the Rohingya, their exploitation locally and the likelihood of increasing hostility towards them will require new approaches to protection and a protection framework that extends beyond the camps. Addressing local concerns over the perceived disparities in support must be part of a broader protection strategy. Improved communication with local communities and better engagement of local civil society will be essential in reducing local tensions. The announcement of World Bank and Asian Development Bank support for development activities in Cox’s Bazar may go some way to addressing local concerns if they are seen to have some immediate impact. While a broader protection framework is essential, there is also a need to improve protection capacities within the camps. The pressures of overcrowding, limited privacy, the lack of education facilities and few outlets for engaging with young people create a potentially volatile environment and increase the risks of radicalisation.

End note

A year after the influx of Rohingya into Cox’s Bazar, it is far from clear what the future holds. While agreements between UNHCR, UNDP and the government of Bangladesh provide a framework for voluntary repatriation with safety and dignity, it is likely that the pressure for repatriation will increase, fuelled by local pressure and national foreign policy concerns. Despite considerable international diplomatic efforts and criticism of Myanmar, it is unlikely that the conditions for safe return with dignity can be met, at least in the near future, and there will be major political obstacles to granting refugee status to Rohingya arrivals, particularly in an election year. While the status of the Rohingya must remain high on the agenda, the immediate priority is to establish a longer and more appropriate time frame for the humanitarian operation in Bangladesh, to enable appropriate physical planning, the development of a stronger protection framework and the better integration of programming and support to both Rohingya and local communities.

Mark Bowden is a Senior Research Associate with the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI. He is a former UN Humanitarian Coordinator.

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