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Three ways humanitarians can support the Rohingya in Bangladesh, two years on

Written by Kerrie Holloway

Hero image description: Rohingya boys in Kutupalong refugee camp, Cox's Bazar Image credit:Jamie Sport Image license:© Jamie Sport

It’s been two years since the mass influx of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh, and little to no progress has been made in resolving the crisis. As of July, there were just under a million Rohingya still living in Cox’s Bazar, housed in overcrowded camps without adequate assistance or protection. They still do not have recognised refugee status, no gains have been made in terms of rights or freedoms over the past year and the Joint Response Plan is only 35% funded.

As their situation becomes more protracted, here are three things the humanitarian community – including UN agencies, NGOs, donors and local organisations – can do to help:

1. Stop supporting repatriation and relocation, which the Rohingya reject

Those working in and supporting the response must stop looking for outcomes that the Rohingya themselves are unlikely to want. Currently, much of the discussion around durable solutions has focused on two options.

First, the government of Bangladesh and regional bodies often speak of repatriation as the only longer-term option. But the Rohingya that we spoke to during our work on dignity in displacement and on medium- to long-term solutions were adamant that any return had to be conditional on receiving rights as citizens in Myanmar, a condition that seems unlikely to be met anytime soon.

Recent reports have raised the prospect of a small group of around 3,500 people being repatriated to Myanmar. However, the Rohingya have not been consulted on this process and remain wary of any new scheme.

Second, the government of Bangladesh has also moved forward with proposals to relocate 100,000 Rohingya to a small, silt island off the coast called Bhasan Char to ease congestion in the camps. This is also rejected by the Rohingya we’ve spoken to.

These two proposals are essentially a false choice between undignified and unsafe displacement, whether in camps or on an isolated island, and undignified and unsafe return.

2. Focus on what’s actually important to them, such as education and livelihoods

Operational organisations and their donors should focus on what’s important to the Rohingya themselves, namely education and jobs. The self-reliance that comes with education and work was one of the main ways the Rohingya conceptualised dignity, including for women who, like men, would rather work than receive aid.

Although the government of Bangladesh currently restricts education and employment, the humanitarian community could do more to provide vocational training, including teacher training, encourage the adoption of a standard curriculum and secure multi-year funding for livelihoods and education. Small, ad hoc initiatives in the camps are not enough.

3. Acknowledge their identity as Rohingya

Finally, it is essential to support them by calling them by the name they call themselves. This identity has been denied them previously by both the government of Myanmar, which refers to them as Bangladeshi, and by the government of Bangladesh, which refers to them as forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals.

During the research for the dignity project, it was clear that the Rohingya did not believe they were stateless. Instead, they insisted they were from Myanmar, and so were their ancestors.

Last November, the Rohingya protested over the use of ‘forcibly displaced Myanmar national’ on the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)’s identity cards. While there are sensitivities around the term Rohingya and using it can be operationally difficult, including it on documents or reports should form the basis of a people-centred and dignified response.

A recent UNDP study noted that at best repatriation will take five years, and it is unlikely that the emergency response can continue to maintain current levels of support without more sustainable solutions around livelihoods and self-reliance.

Although there are aspects of the crisis that are outside of the control of the humanitarian community – such as Bangladesh’s policy decisions or Myanmar’s refusal of Rohingya citizenship – there are still practical ways to support the Rohingya so that, in another two years’ time, their situation will have improved.

At a minimum, this requires understanding and acknowledging the needs and aspirations of the Rohingya themselves, including education and jobs. Without this understanding, it will be impossible for the humanitarian community to meet its commitments to a people-centred response that promotes dignity and creates paths towards self-reliance.

Rohingya boys in Kutupalong refugee camp, Cox's Bazar