The Rohingya feel pangs of hunger too

The international community cannot turn their backs on the Rohingya refugees.
Rohingyas feel pangs of hunger too
Slashing the food assistance will make the lives of the Rohingyas who have been surviving on the bare minimum in the refugee camps of Cox's Bazar even worse. FILE PHOTO: REUTERS

They have endured pain, torture, loss and trauma. They took on the perilous journey from Myanmar's Rakhine state – where the military junta unleashed inexplicable brutality on the Rohingya men, women and children with genocidal intent – to Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar, where they were given a safe shelter by the government and people.

Initially, the Rohingya were afforded empathy, sympathy and compassion by both Bangladesh and the international community, but the interest of the latter – especially on the repatriation or sustenance of the unfortunate Rohingya – has been waning over time. With other issues of more relevance – and of increasing geopolitical interest – riding high on the humanitarian agenda (i.e. victims of the Russia-Ukraine war), the donors are able to spare only a little of their funds – or thoughts, for that matter – for the Rohingya.

Bangladesh, in the aftermath of the double economic shocks of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, is struggling to provide for the Rohingya refugees, especially because of the ever dwindling funds from the international community. Last year, less than half of the appealed USD 881 million under the Joint Response Plan (JRP) was disbursed.

As a result, the Rohingya are helplessly drowning in their own misery. While some of the refugees seem to have accepted their ill fate with a stoic outlook, others – especially the younger ones – are desperate to change their fate. This is making them vulnerable to the lures and traps of criminals – from drug dealers to prostitution rings to human traffickers. Given there is little to no economic activity within the camps, and no certainty about repatriation, the Rohingya face a bleak future.

And now the United Nations' decision to slash food aid for the Rohingya – that, too, ahead of the month of Ramadan and Eid-ul-Fitr – has come as a shock, not just for the refugees, but also for the host nation. Stretched donor budget has been cited as one of the primary reasons for the decision. But the host nation and subsequently the Rohingya refugees are battling the same challenges, too. So, how does the international community propose the Rohingya refugees survive on a monthly allowance of USD 10, down from USD 12, which was already a little too stretched for them?

The World Food Programme (WFP) is appealing for an urgent fund of USD 125 million to avert the planned food aid slash, which, if not received, will lead to further and deeper cuts. If this comes to pass, it would lead to disastrous consequences for the refugees and the region.

Already in the grip of abject poverty, the Rohingya refugees are trying to find ways to escape the confines of the fenced refugee camps in Cox's Bazar and Bhashan Char. In 2022 alone, more than 3,500 Rohingya have tried to undertake desperate journeys through the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, in 39 boats, according to data from the UNHCR. This is a 360 percent increase from the previous year, when about 700 Rohingya people tried to make similar attempts. While some of them have managed to land in various countries including Malaysia and Indonesia, many others have fallen prey to debt bondage, slavery and forced prostitution, while the rest were lost to the unforgiving seas. The looming prospects of increased misery will only add to the desperation of these refugees.

What is even more alarming is that sex trade is already highly prevalent among the female refugees, who are being forced by the never-ending economic wretchedness to choose sex trade to earn a living. Kutupalong is a sex trade hotspot where more than 500 Rohingya girls and women reside and serve clients. These women and girls are lured into sex trade by fixers with the promise of a better future, but they hardly make between USD 2 and USD 6 per client. Often, these women are also taken by the fixers – who collude with the local law enforcers – outside the camps to serve clients in hotels across Cox's Bazar. These women are dozed with steroids by the fixers and often subjected to battery, including by the clients.

USD 125 million to sustain the lives of Rohingya refugees in Coxs Bazar camps is only a drop in the ocean for the international community, who generously give out billions of dollars in military aid to various countries, and even rogue states, to support military escalation that claims hundreds and thousands of lives.

"The food handout is not enough; when my kids cry for rice, where will I get it from?" a sex worker asked Tania Rashid from PBS News Hour in 2018. Now that food aid is going to be cut further, more and more girls and women will be at the risk of exploitation and forced sex labour.

Moreover, according to WFP, about 40 percent of pregnant and breastfeeding Rohingya women are anaemic, while almost one in eight Rohingya children is acutely malnourished. More than 95 children are born in the Rohingya camps every day, and the Rohingya population is expected to grow to 1.2-1.3 million by 2025, according to a defence ministry report. How is Bangladesh expected to support this growing population in the face of shrinking donor aid?

Another major risk for the Rohingya is the possibility of increased crime rate as a result of the dwindling aid. As assistance will become more and more elusive, livelihood and life choices for the Rohingya would become difficult and reckless.

We have already seen a sharp rise in violent crimes inside – and at times outside – the Rohingya refugee camps in the last couple of years. With the economic hardships creating added burden on the refugees, criminal gangs would find it easier to recruit Rohingya youth to serve their criminal intentions.

It is common knowledge that ARSA is already active inside the camps along with nine other armed gangs and they are trying to establish their superiority – with control of the drug trafficking business among its major goals – resulting in bloodshed. And all these gangs will need more muscle for cheap. There is a significant risk that it is these criminal groups that will plug in the financial vacuum left by the donors.

Bangladesh is going out of its way to provide for the Rohingya refugees. The Rohingya crisis is the responsibility of the international community, who has not only failed to broker a safe and dignified repatriation for the refugees, even when a so-called democratic government was in power in Myanmar, but has also shamelessly invested in the military-controlled businesses and development activities in Myanmar, including in Rakhine state, from where the Rohingyas have been mercilessly uprooted.

The aggravation of the Rohingya crisis will have a significant impact on the region, including in East Asia. While it is understandable that repatriation has become difficult due to the apparent non-cooperation of Myanmar's ruling military regime, the least the donors can do is provide for the Rohingya refugees to meet their basic sustenance needs.

USD 125 million – or, for that matter, the JRP appeal of USD 883 million for 2023 – to sustain lives is only a drop in the ocean for the international community, who generously give out billions of dollars in military aid to various countries, and even rogue states, to support military escalation that claims hundreds and thousands of lives. The Rohingya deserve more than just mere words of "concern," and the world must remember that.


Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is @tasneem_tayeb