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Crisis Mounts for Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh

December 6th, 2023  •  Author:   International Crisis Group  •  6 minute read
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Nearly a million Rohingya remain stuck in Bangladesh, with little hope of going home soon, as violence rises in the camps and international agencies trim their assistance. Donors should scale the aid back up, while Dhaka should modify its approach to allow for long-term planning. 

Executive Summary

Six years after most of them fled Myanmar’s Rakhine State, the almost one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are no closer to returning home. While the 2021 coup in Myanmar has further dimmed prospects for large-scale repatriation, security and economic conditions are deteriorating in the overcrowded refugee camps. Local authorities have failed to keep the Rohingya safe from armed groups and criminal gangs fighting for control of the camps. International aid is declining, due to competing priorities and financial constraints, but the Bangladeshi government makes matters worse by restricting the refugees’ ability to earn an income. Donors should urgently increase humanitarian assistance closer to its previous level and work with the government to alter its policies so that more refugees have opportunities to support themselves. Bangladesh should also reform the way camps are policed, in part to allow greater civilian Rohingya leadership.

Over the past twelve months, turf wars among rival armed groups have bedevilled the sprawling refugee camps located in Bangladesh’s southern Cox’s Bazar district. Fighting between the once-dominant Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and groups such as the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) has left scores of refugees dead, while the number of abductions – in which armed groups or criminal gangs hold refugees for ransom – has increased nearly fourfold in 2023. While violence earlier occurred only at night, militants wielding knives and locally made guns now roam the camps during the day, threatening residents and killing rivals. Bangladesh’s Armed Police Battalion, which has been responsible for camp security since July 2020, not only lacks the resources to protect refugees, but also appears to be complicit in their troubles: its members are accused of extorting, kidnapping and even torturing Rohingya, who have almost no recourse.

Meanwhile, international support for the Rohingya humanitarian response is dwindling. In 2022, the UN’s humanitarian appeal was only 63 per cent funded, and pledges have dropped even more sharply in 2023 to date. As a result, humanitarian organisations have had to scale back vital services; most significantly, the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) has been forced to cut food rations twice, reducing them from $12 to $8 per person per month, or a meagre 27 cents per day. The cuts are devastating because most refugees are heavily dependent on aid; government restrictions designed to prevent Rohingya from integrating into Bangladesh mean that finding legal employment is exceedingly difficult. Rising food prices in the aftermath of Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine have further exacerbated the problem. There are already indications that the aid cuts are having a range of deleterious effects, from rising malnutrition rates among children to more cases of intimate partner violence.

In early 2023, following two failed attempts at repatriation in 2018 and 2019, Naypyitaw and Dhaka pushed ahead with a pilot project that would see more than 1,000 refugees return in a first phase. Both sides – along with China, which is playing a mediating role – are keen to make progress, albeit for different reasons: Myanmar’s military regime believes that returns will help its defence at the International Court of Justice against allegations of genocide in 2017, while Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government hopes that they will play in its favour in the general election scheduled for January 2024. The repatriation attempt is unlikely to succeed, however. Refugees are sceptical of Naypyitaw’s assurances of their safety and wary of its refusal to grant them automatic citizenship. They have good reason to be cautious: conditions in Myanmar have got worse since the 2021 coup, and in November fresh fighting broke out in Rakhine State between the military and Arakan Army, one of the country’s most powerful ethnic armed groups, making safe, dignified and voluntary return all but impossible.

The Bangladeshi government’s restrictions have deepened refugees’ reliance on assistance and added to the cost of the humanitarian response.

These three issues – rising insecurity, declining aid and stalled repatriation – are closely intertwined, creating a crisis that threatens to spiral out of control. The Bangladeshi government’s restrictions have deepened refugees’ reliance on assistance and added to the cost of the humanitarian response. Dhaka’s policy is also at odds with a reality in which tens of thousands of refugees are already working informally in cities surrounding the camps, where they are regularly subjected to exploitation due to their illegal status and forced to pay bribes to security officials.

Growing poverty and hopelessness in the camps – fuelled by the lack of near-term prospects of return to Myanmar – have compelled many Rohingya to make difficult decisions, ranging from young men joining armed groups or criminal gangs for pay to families resorting to early marriage of adolescent girls in order to reduce the number of mouths to feed. Thousands of desperate refugees have also undertaken risky journeys in the hope of reaching Malaysia, while an unknown number have quietly returned to Rakhine State despite the dangers or disappeared into other regions in Bangladesh despite rules that normally forbid them to leave the camps.

Bangladesh, in partnership with international actors, needs to break this vicious cycle. It should lay the foundations for a sustainable response that acknowledges the protracted nature of the crisis, even while it continues pressing the Myanmar authorities to create suitable conditions for repatriation. Donors have a crucial role to play in supporting initiatives that build self-reliance and minimise aid dependence, but they can do so only if Dhaka rethinks its policies, permitting activities beyond emergency relief. In the interim, they should bring humanitarian funding back to a level that lets refugees live in dignity, starting with ensuring that they have enough to eat. To address rising insecurity, Bangladesh also needs to overhaul the way it polices the camps, allow greater civilian leadership among the refugee population and take stronger action against criminals who are exploiting the refugee crisis for personal gain.

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