International community needs to extend humanitarian assistance to Bangladesh to end lingering Rohingya crisis

Bangladesh cannot solve the Rohingya crisis alone; the international community should come forward in implementing the promised humanitarian actions and work in coordination with Bangladesh to find a durable solution to the festering problem, writes Shaikh Abdur Rahman for South Asia Monitor

Shaikh Abdur Rahman Jun 21, 2021
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Rohingya refugees gather in an area of a complex housing at Bhashan Char in Bangladesh during a visit by senior officials of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), May 31, 2021. (Source: BenarNews)

Around 500-600 Rohingya refugees reportedly staged a demonstration at Bhasan Char island - in the Bay of Bengal and about 60 km from the Bangladesh mainland – during the recent visit of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representatives demanding the United Nations engage robustly in the Rohingya crisis and enhance relief facilities for them.

The UNHCR delegation which faced the May 31 protests included Gillian Triggs, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection and Raouf Mazou, Assistant High Commissioner for Operation.

From the beginning of the relocation process of the Rohingyas to Bhasan Char, Bangladesh has been pleading with the international donor states and institutions to extend help for the most persecuted refugees. Had the United Nations participated in the relocation process by providing adequate support, the demonstration would not have taken place.

Earlier, several Rohingya majhis (leaders), national and international journalists, UN, Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) and donor states had visited Bhasan Char – part of Hatiya sub-district in Noakhali district - to take a look at the infrastructures and facilities there. All of them expressed their satisfaction over the far better living conditions of Bhashan Char compared to the cramped camps of Cox’s Bazar where the Rohingya refugees have been staying so long, and no demonstrations were taken out during that trip. So, after the Bhashan char protests on May 31, one may look into the underlying causes of the sudden demonstration.

Shortage of Funding

After the last major Rohingya refugee influx into Bangladesh on 25 August 2017, an estimated 745,000 Rohingyas have fled from Myanmar and taken shelter in 34 refugee camps in Cox's Bazar district. Now Bangladesh hosts 1,103,272 registered Rohingya refugees, and, taking into account the unregistered ones, the figure is much higher. The country is now under a financial strain, having to spend nearly USD 900 million annually to maintain these refugees.

The table below demonstrates that from 2019 onwards the shortage of funds is increasing year after year, which indicates the difficulty level in maintaining the supply and demand chain of the basic needs for the Rohingya refugees. This seems to be the most likely cause for the increasing grievances among the Rohingya refugees.

Year                                   Requirement         Funded            Funding Shortfall (in percentage)
2017 (Sep. 17- Feb.18)   USD 434.1M          USD 317M                27
2018 (Mar- Dec.18)         USD 951M            USD 655M                31
2019                                  USD 920M           USD 699M                24
2020                                  USD 1058M         USD 629M                40.5
2021 (Jan- April)              USD 943M           USD 134M                86
Table: Funds and fund shortage under Joint Response Plan (JRP) (2017-2021)

Negligence of international community

The UNHCR expressed concern over the Bhashan char incident but they have not taken any concrete action to protect the rights of the Rohingya Refugees so far. Instead of increasing the humanitarian assistance to the distressed Rohingya refugees, the funding for them has been curtailed in the recent past. 

Rather than cooperating with the initiative of the Bangladesh government, the UN and other humanitarian organizations were more concerned with voicing their doubts about the sustainability of the infrastructure during natural calamities, the remoteness of the island from the mainland and relocation “in a phased manner”.  

Bangladesh has reiterated that the relocation has been done voluntarily and approximately 18,414 Rohingya refugees happily shifted there looking for a glimmer of hope. The island is totally safe from natural calamities because of the standard infrastructure and housing facilities including the nine-foot-high embankments and 120 cluster houses with cyclone centers constructed after analyzing 176 years of historical data and statistics.

During the cyclone Amphan or the recent Yaas, no damage or death was reported in Bhashan Char. Instead of opposing the initiative of the relocation process of one-tenth of the Rohingya refugees from the camps of Cox’s Bazar, the international community should actively engage with the humanitarian activities in Bashan Char.

Protracted repatriation process

There is no difference of opinion among the Rohingya refugees, the Bangladesh government, and the international community that the Arakan Muslims are desperate to return to their homeland. However, it is really pathetic that four years have passed, but not a single refugee has been repatriated to Myanmar. It affects the psychology of the Myanmar nationals and the demonstration is the outcome of their grievances. Besides, it is also reported that some refugees in the Bhashan Char protest want to go to Malaysia illegally using the sea route, but they have been stopped by the security forces of Bangladesh. Their long aspiration for a home in Malaysia also contributed to the demonstration during the tour by the high-ranking UNHCR officials.

The Bhashan Char protests during the visit of the UNHCR delegates is a strong expression of the grievances among the Rohingyas of their protracted stay as refugees in Bangladesh, the lingering repatriation process, and the diminishing funding from the international community.

Bangladesh cannot solve the Rohingya crisis alone; the international community should come forward in implementing the promised humanitarian actions and work in coordination with Bangladesh to find a durable solution to the festering problem. The Bhashan Char incident is clearly a reminder to all to find a fast and comprehensive solution; otherwise, it will destabilize regional peace and stability soon.

(The writer is a Bangladesh-based independent researcher and international expert on human security issues, South Asian politics and economic diplomacy. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at sagorruir@gmail.com)