We must focus on building Rohingya and host community resilience
This month marks the fourth year since the flight of more than 730,000 Rohingya from Myanmar's Rakhine State to Bangladesh after a military-led crackdown. The exodus followed decades of systemic disenfranchisement, discrimination, targeted violence and persecution against the Rohingya in Myanmar.
Every time I visit the camps in Cox's Bazar, I am humbled by the extraordinary fortitude of the Rohingya people and by the generosity of their hosts here in Bangladesh. But four years since the terrible events of August 2017—and nearly two years since The Gambia brought its historic case against Myanmar to the International Court of Justice—there has been little progress towards securing the Rohingya refugees' return to Myanmar or guarantees for their safety and citizenship there. February's military coup in Myanmar and the violence which has followed make the prospects of voluntary, safe and dignified repatriation in the short to medium term even more challenging, and the situation for the Rohingya people who remain in Myanmar more precarious.
Under the leadership of the prime minister and the government of Bangladesh, the humanitarian response has saved many thousands of lives. The crisis has slowly stabilised, and the refugees have access to healthcare, food, shelter and water and sanitation. The Rohingya refugees themselves, and the women and men in the host communities, have played vital roles in this. We see this generosity at work again in the roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines for refugees.
However, despite progress, the situation remains challenging both for the Rohingya and for their hosts in Bangladesh. The devastating impact of heavy monsoon rains in recent weeks is a reminder of how vulnerable the region and the camps are to weather-related hazards and more frequent natural disasters, exacerbated by climate change. Earlier this year, fires in the camps compounded the trauma already suffered by the refugees. Camp security continues to decline. There are worrying trends on child marriage and gender-based violence against women and girls.
Faced with dim prospects for a durable solution to their situation, many Rohingya say they look to the future with a sense of despair and hopelessness, or are lured by human traffickers into attempting dangerous voyages in unsafe boats. For Bangladesh, the crisis brings increasing environmental, economic, social and security concerns.
This continuing crisis is a tragedy for all involved. No one chooses to live in a refugee camp, or to host a large influx of displaced people. As with so many other refugees worldwide, the great majority of the Rohingya population say they want to return home. Alongside others, the UK has played a key role in coordinating the international response to the coup in Myanmar. We continue to raise the plight of the Rohingya on the international stage, including in the UN Security Council. As a new Dialogue Partner of ASEAN, we support the efforts of the ASEAN Special Envoy. And we continue to provide humanitarian support to the Rohingya in Rakhine. But the reality is that returns will take time, especially given the current violence and political turmoil in Myanmar.
It is therefore essential that the humanitarian operation in Cox's Bazar is planned and organised for the longer term to provide for and protect the refugees until they can return home, as well as support the neighbouring communities. We are committed to working with the government of Bangladesh to do so, and have recently announced fresh funding under the UN Joint Response Plan. As I have seen for myself, the impressive purpose-built accommodation on Bhasan Char can help relieve the pressure in the camps, and we look forward to the establishment of a UN presence there. But the sheer numbers involved mean the camps will remain the centre of the humanitarian operation, and refugees should be supported in the same way wherever they are.
As the crisis enters its fifth year, I suggest that there are four things which could be done now to help both the refugees and their hosts.
First, with the easing of Covid-19 restrictions nationally, and test positivity rates in the camps under 10 percent, an easing of the Covid protocols would enable the resumption of essential camp management and protection services. This could include repair of infrastructure and shelters damaged by the monsoon and improved ability to prevent, or assist survivors of, gender-based violence and other violations of human rights.
Second, a renewed focus on equipping the Rohingya with education and skills would give them the opportunity to serve their refugee communities as volunteers, earn a basic living, and prepare them for eventual return to Myanmar. This is not to suggest integration, which we know neither the government of Bangladesh nor the Rohingya want, but to help avoid a descent into despondency, criminality and insecurity while the refugees are in Bangladesh.
Third, a new approach to camp perimeter safety and security could allow the refugees access to services and safe evacuation in case of emergencies. Fourth, the international effort must continue to provide support for the Bangladeshi host communities affected by the crisis. UK humanitarian programming reflects this.
These steps could help keep the Rohingya community and their hosts in Bangladesh safe and resilient until the Rohingya can do what they and we all most want, which is to return as soon as possible in safety and dignity to their homes in Rakhine.
Robert Chatterton Dickson is the British High Commissioner to Bangladesh.