Reinforcing Respect: Considering dignity in the Rohingya humanitarian response

Rohingya refugees camps in Cox’s Bazar. Photo: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

In our work as researchers with the Centre for Peace and Justice (CPJ), BRAC University, we strive to understand refugee community concerns, which we share in turn with the humanitarians and decision-makers. From June to November 2020, 30 Rohingya refugee volunteers working with us under CPJ's Refugee Studies Unit in Cox's Bazar consulted over 3,000 other camp residents to address emerging concerns and questions during the Covid-19 pandemic.

One frequent complaint from the refugees is about the lack of consultation by humanitarian actors and the failure to reflect community concerns in programme planning and implementation. There is a perception that community feedback is inadequately collected and reflected in programming and aid distribution. As one Rohingya woman shared, "Humanitarian agencies never come listening to our opinions and preferences. We have said that we dislike lentils and certain other foods. Nevertheless, they have yet to replace them with other items." Another Rohingya man said, "Even though we complain frequently, NGOs do not respond to our needs and challenges, which makes us feel as if we are not esteemed."

While NGO staff do sometimes undertake a cursory consultative process, there is insufficient communication to explain if and how community requests end up reflected in programme planning. Refugees are unclear whether agencies' priorities are simply pre-identified—the legacies of a cookie-cutter approach in which identical programming is carried out across different humanitarian responses globally—or whether they do indeed have the right to voice their needs and have them responded to. They want to know that NGOs recognise them as dignified human beings, instead of as passive beneficiaries of aid.

NGOs face many unavoidable limitations in regard to their work with Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar, such as the short time span allotted for aid projects, inadequate funding, donor demands, and a shortage of human resources. Despite these, respectful treatment should be placed at the heart of conversations around accountability of humanitarians to the affected population. Fortunately, matters of dignity and respect can always be addressed regardless of these restrictions. Humanitarian agencies can ensure that all staff are equipped with these soft skills as a matter of principle.

Rohingya respondents consulted by the CPJ volunteers emphasised specific social, religious and economic dimensions of dignity. Many of them view formal, polite speech and greetings as expressions of dignity. For instance, according to one Rohingya youth, "You don't need to give us a million dollars to make us happy… just soft behaviour and communication, with empathy and emotional support." Community members widely complained that field-level staff such as security guards sometimes shout at, verbally abuse and even physically hit refugees with sticks. This often happens in an effort to control crowds waiting in food ration distribution queues or at hospitals.

As a result, refugees—including those who are highly esteemed within their own community, such as elders and teachers—often feel insulted and demotivated to engage with humanitarian agencies to receive further services. The resulting lack of trust is compounded by a sense of resentment that arises as people see NGO staff holding higher social status, earning good salaries, and displaying wealth in the form of vehicles, clothes and equipment. Numerous camp residents have expressed to CPJ volunteers that they feel used by NGOs as a means to personal and organisational enrichment.

For the Rohingya, dignity is also linked with religious and cultural practices. Several respondents said that women's conservative lifestyle of staying inside the home is a matter of prestige. Thus, many camp residents say they would prefer gender-segregated queues during rations distributions. In instances where international norms around gender equity do not mesh well with traditional cultural norms, such as women being required to receive aid directly to ensure equitable distribution, these differences can and should be clearly explained to those who receive services by the responsible agencies.

Rohingya respondents also frequently complained about perceived poor treatment in camp health facilities. They explain that a patient's dignity is affected by the doctor or nurse's style of communication and the amount of time that he or she spends talking to a patient, listening with empathy and fostering a comforting interaction. Many Rohingya women also hesitate to receive medical treatment from male doctors. Again, women sometimes feel disrespected if they have to wait in queues with men to receive medical services.

The task of feeding and protecting nearly a million Rohingya, a population larger than that of Bhutan and many Western countries, is not a small one, and over 100 Bangladeshi and international NGOs are working from dawn to dusk across the 34 camps to uplift the lives of refugees. Despite their complaints, Rohingya do show ample gratitude to the government of Bangladesh and its people for their incredible support. A cookie-cutter approach was useful in the early stages of the humanitarian response, but a more responsive situational approach is now needed which is more conducive to meeting the expressed needs and preferences of the Rohingya.

The nature of authoritativeness and power distance between the NGO staff and beneficiaries, and bias due to stereotypes, prejudice and preconceived perceptions against the Rohingya, leads to discrimination that should be proactively addressed by those with the power to do so. Finally, while CPJ has not yet studied the ways in which similar dynamics transpire between host community beneficiaries and humanitarian actors, this is an additional area that should be addressed in the interest of overhauling asymmetrical power issues affecting dignity and respect across the aid response in Cox's Bazar.


Azizul Hoque is a Research Associate and Jessica Olney is a Visiting Researcher at the Centre for Peace and Justice, BRAC University. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the centre or the university.


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