Five changes we need in the fifth year of the Rohingya crisis
Over the last four years, the Rohingya refugee crisis has changed the Cox's Bazar-Teknaf Peninsula on many levels. It is not only that 3,200 hectares of forest area got converted into 34 camps to shelter about a million Rohingyas, but also that at least 700 thousand tons of fuelwood have been collected from the surrounding areas. Since August 25, 2017, while funds for Rohingya refugees positively supported Cox's Bazar's economy, there was also a gradual increase of tensions between the host and refugee communities. Despite many positive stories coming out of the refugee camps and the host community, the risk of organised crimes, like human and drug trafficking, remains high.
As we enter the fifth year of the Rohingya crisis, the government of Bangladesh, UN agencies, international NGOs (INGOs), and local and national Bangladeshi NGOs need to consider making five changes.
First, long-term planning regarding this crisis is difficult, since Rohingya repatriation—the ultimate and only solution, as far as Bangladesh is concerned—is uncertain. After repeated attempts until 2019, repatriation still did not occur. Since March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has made repatriation elusive. And, since February 2021, the coup and the state of emergency in Myanmar have made any resolution of this crisis nearly impossible for the foreseeable future. Preparing for long-term crisis management also gives the wrong impression to concerned parties—Myanmar, the Rohingya, humanitarian agencies, international actors, donors, and Bangladeshis—that Bangladesh is not only expecting, but is also accepting and preparing for a long delay in resolution.
But a certain extent of long-term planning is necessary—for the refugee camps as well as for the whole region. For example, although the ongoing refugee crisis sped up forest destruction drastically since August 2017, Inani National Park and Teknaf Wildlife Sanctuary have lost significant tree cover over the last 30 years. A satellite image-based study published in November 2020 predicted that a further 5,100 hectares of forest may be transformed by 2027 due to the crisis. Based on past losses, ongoing damages and future predictions, it would be ideal to opt for landscape restoration as a nature-based solution for the region. This will not only provide economic improvement, food security, disaster risk reduction, and biodiversity benefits to Cox's Bazar, but will also offer long-term adaptation to climate change.
Second, such long-term planning—more importantly, immediate support to the Rohingya—requires money, and lots of it. As per the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), during 2018-2020, at the beginning of each calendar year, the government of Bangladesh and the UN agencies requested from the donors, on average, USD 980 million as Rohingya humanitarian assistance. These appeals are called Joint Response Plans (JRPs), against which 68 percent funds were received per year, on average. In the first eight months of 2021, 34 percent funds have been received against the USD 943 million required. Since 2017, Bangladesh has received USD 3.38 billion, of which 22 percent were not part of the JRPs. Until now, we have been seeing a stable flow of funds, which is at risk of shrinking due to the pandemic's impact on global economy and long-term and new humanitarian crises occurring around the world. Bangladesh and its humanitarian partners urgently need to strategise to cope with such decline in funding and have that be reflected in the current and 2022 JRPs. This could be done by identifying and exploring unconventional sources for funds, reducing expenses by changing implementation modality, and generating resources internally.
Third, we need to engage adult and able Rohingyas in income-generating activities within the camps, so that they can generate a part of the funds required to support them. Mainstreaming them into Bangladeshi society is not possible since Bangladesh hasn't signed the 1951 Refugee Convention yet and officially identifies Rohingyas as "Forcibly Displaced Myanmar Nationals", and not as "refugees". We need to invest in improving Rohingyas' livelihood skills to produce goods (e.g. grow vegetables, plant nurseries, and create handicrafts) and offer services (e.g. as part of the workforce in different sectors), and subsequently by linking the products to in- and off-camp markets. While the Rohingya do get involved in different occasional livelihood activities within the camps, taking a holistic approach to this problem and linking them to markets are currently missing from these livelihood efforts. Through this approach, they could add value to their presence in Bangladesh, gain dignity, reduce unemployment-related concerns (like domestic violence and organised crimes), and become prepared for returning to Myanmar. Such a shift is needed as soon as possible by revisiting the approaches and activities in the 2021 JRP, while remaining vigilant against the pandemic, and continuing with it through to the 2022 JRP.
Fourth, in terms of refugee crisis management, we also need a shift from the present dependency on the INGOs to Bangladeshi NGOs. As per the 2021 JRP, nine UN agencies, 56 INGOs, and 69 Bangladeshi NGOs are working in Cox's Bazar. In 2018, these numbers were 12 UN agencies, 69 INGOs, and 58 Bangladeshi NGOs. Movements of Bangladeshi professionals from Bangladeshi NGOs to INGOs or UN agencies were common, which is inevitable in a closed, dynamic situation like a humanitarian crisis. This, and the increasing involvement of Bangladeshi NGOs in the past four years, indicate significant improvement of Bangladeshi professionals' capacity. The expertise and values INGOs and UN agencies have been adding to the crisis management should have effectively been transferred to Bangladeshi NGOs by now, in terms of high project management standards, quality delivery of output, accountability and transparency, responsiveness, and innovation. It is, therefore, high time to facilitate a faster replacement of the INGOs by Bangladeshi NGOs for the forthcoming 2022 JRP.
Fifth, an online search through Google Scholar shows that, between January 1, 2018 and August 21, 2021, 140 academic journal articles were published on the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh. While 93 articles were published in the first three years of the crisis (2018−2020), 47 were published in the first eight months of 2021. This means that researchers in this field have been publishing their work 2.3 times faster in recent months. The research mostly highlights Covid-19, mental and other health issues, crisis resolution, security and legal aspects, and disaster-related and environmental concerns. The Bangladeshi government and humanitarian agencies manage the camps based on large databases on the Rohingya, planned interventions, and changing situations. Different agencies also conduct assessments and studies such as the World Food Programme's (WFP) 2019-2020 Plantation Assessment Report, International Rescue Committee's (IRC) analysis on Gender-Based Violence among the refugees, UNHCR's assessment on piloting of pressure cookers to increase the efficiency of LPG use, and BRAC's study on the impacts of digital platforms being used by the Rohingya. These knowledge products, both by humanitarian agencies and academic researchers, should be considered in designing interventions and planning for the 2022 JRP. In this way, refugee crisis management can be transformed from being a data-driven action into being a knowledge-guided venture.
Uncertainty is the only certain thing when it comes to the Rohingya refugee crisis. We need to accept this as a fact, make changes in our approaches to take effective action, and get ready for yet another uncertain year.
Dr. Haseeb Md Irfanullah is an independent consultant working on environment, climate change, and research systems. His Twitter handle is @hmirfanullah