Building resilience ignites ‘hope away from home’ for Rohingya refugees
Today we mark World Refugee Day, an occasion intended to celebrate the resilience and courage of millions of people forced to flee their homes due to war, persecution, violence, and human rights abuses. This year, more than 35 million people in the world are living as refugees, forced to cross an international border to find safety.
Around the world, people show extraordinary hospitality to refugees as they extend protection and help to those in need. We need not look far to see how the Bangladeshi people continue to show hospitality towards some one million Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar.
Such welcome in time of need offers safety and shelter. It also sows hope – hope for a brighter future and hope to be able to return home when it is one day safe to do so. While they wait to return to Myanmar, the Rohingya want to carry on with their lives in Bangladesh by providing for themselves and not depending solely on humanitarian aid.
Each time I meet with Rohingya women, men, and youth, they tell me of their desire for education, their eagerness to learn new skills, and to contribute meaningfully to life in the camps. Hope is not an idle wish. It's a sense of becoming that is rooted in action. We give refugees hope when we empower them to take control of their daily lives and give them a sense of purpose by investing in education, skills training, and livelihood opportunities.
The Rohingya stand at the core of all humanitarian activities in the camps, demonstrating time and again resilience, dedication, and capabilities. From controlling fires and responding to floods, teaching in the learning centres, providing community health support, to participating in vaccination campaigns, they are a lifeline serving their communities every day. Bangladeshi volunteers also play an important role in these activities. More support is needed to sustain this.
This World Refugee Day, there is an urgent need to invest in collective efforts to allow the Rohingya to become self-reliant as they cannot, and do not wish to, remain dependent on humanitarian aid. This can be achieved by developing skills training programmes, scaling up livelihood initiatives, and continuing to provide volunteering opportunities for Rohingya refugees, so they can meet their basic needs and support their communities. In parallel, efforts to improve the lives of affected host communities must continue in earnest.
In parallel, we must continue to pursue efforts to realise safe, voluntary, and sustainable repatriation to Myanmar when conditions are right for return. This remains the optimal solution to the crisis, and the unwavering desire of the Rohingya refugees.
The Rohingya response is facing a severe funding crisis, with this year's Joint Response Plan just over a quarter funded mid-way through the year. The consequences are dire, illustrated by the recent cuts in food assistance, which is worrying every single Rohingya to whom my colleagues and I speak in the camps. Combined with a rise of criminality by armed groups in the camps, and lack of hope about the future, we see increasing challenges related to the refugees' physical safety and mental health. Increased desperation makes the refugees more vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers and other criminal elements, recently having led to a 300 percent increase in dangerous boat journeys from Bangladesh. To sustain our response and maintain hope for the Rohingya refugees waiting to return home, we need urgent funding and advocacy support to find durable solutions.
I have hope, too, that the narrative in the media and in society towards the Rohingya refugees will show more empathy and understanding for their protection and assistance needs. No one chooses to become a refugee; no one wishes to remain in exile for any longer than needed. Hope is powerful and helps people get through dark times. But hope needs to be nurtured and supported, or we risk seeing it fade away, burnt to ashes by one of the several fires that ravage the camps, or blown away by the strong winds of Cyclone Mocha, which again affected more than 30,000 people in the camps last month. Refugees were once again forced to rebuild their homes from scratch, highlighting the need for a more sustainable approach to shelter materials in the camps.
I remain inspired to see the refugees engaged in many positive activities. Inspired by the sight of more adolescent girls attending classes in the learning centres following the Myanmar curriculum. Encouraged by the passion of young Rohingya men fighting sexual and gender-based violence. Moved by the eagerness of Rohingya of all ages to make the camp environment better, and the positive stories of more and more women who are learning new skills by volunteering in production centres. The list goes on: Rohingya refugees are doing everything they can to live a dignified life and we, in turn, must do everything we can to give them hope and find solutions. Igniting hope away from home, something which every single refugee needs the most.
Johannes van der Klaauw is the UNHCR representative in Bangladesh.