International media attention has returned to Myanmar this week following the news of a military coup. The overturning of a clear election victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party also has consequences for the future of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
After discarding even the minimal constraints of civilian power-sharing, and apparently unconcerned with international censure, the new military regime is unlikely to prioritise the safe and dignified return of Rohingya communities – not least because they were the main perpetrators of the genocidal campaign that drove the largest numbers of Rohingya out of Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state in August 2017. The prospect of returns to Myanmar is bleaker than at any time since the current crisis began. A longer-term vision for refugees in Bangladesh is therefore now more important than ever.
Restrictions facing Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh
At present, Rohingya living in Bangladesh face a tangle of constraints and insecurities. Restrictions on activities that would support Rohingya communities’ agency, dignity and self-reliance – such as access to livelihood opportunities and the ability to organise their own affairs – have intensified as the crisis has worn on. Despite ease of physical access and a comparatively stable – if fragile – security environment, such restrictions mean that the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh currently rank among one of the most challenging contexts in ACAPS’ most recent Humanitarian Access Overview.
The Bangladeshi authorities are determined to remove and isolate the problem. Undeterred by condemnation from rights groups, long-planned efforts to relocate refugees to a remote, low-lying island in the Bay of Bengal are beginning in earnest. Meanwhile, efforts to kick-start repatriation to Myanmar continue, despite minimal evidence of good faith engagement by Burmese authorities, even prior to the coup.
Humanitarian responses are falling short
For humanitarian organisations, response planning in existing Rohingya camps remains stuck in short-term cycles, rather than sustained efforts that can evolve and build over time. Despite repeatedly expressing clear preferences to have a greater stake in their future, Rohingya communities have for the most part continued to be shut out of the decisions that affect their lives, reproducing the same pattern of exclusion that stretches back decades on both sides of the border.
This situation is inefficient, unsustainable, and undermines the basic dignity of refugee communities.
While pressure on Myanmar to foster conditions for safe return and uphold its obligations under international law with respect to the Rohingya should continue, there now needs to be a step-change in how the crisis is handled in Bangladesh. The international community must continue to support the Government of Bangladesh in meeting the basic needs of refugees, but with a much stronger focus on longer-term planning.
Put the needs and hopes of the Rohingya centre-stage
Tools such as the Global Compact for Refugees, which Bangladesh has endorsed, are useful frameworks for engagement. Experiences in other contexts also offer lessons in how to integrate refugees into local development planning and social protection frameworks, for example. Such moves would also provide much-needed support to vulnerable host communities, whose lives have been upended by this crisis and are neglected by the international humanitarian response.
Yet such work must also be grounded in advocacy for the Rohingya, especially given recent events in Myanmar. This is to help ensure they are treated as refugees and can enjoy basic freedoms such as the ability to work, move and associate. Development solutions that pour money into Cox’s Bazar district without addressing fundamental issues of refugee protection and rights risk entrenching the status quo, mirroring similar mistakes in Rakhine.
There is ultimately an opportunity to see Rohingya refugees as an opportunity not a threat, to harness their potential positive economic impact for their hosts and to engage them as potential partners in the sustainable development of Bangladesh while it remains unsafe for them to return home. Most importantly of all, any attempt to seize this opportunity has to be centred around the needs and aspirations of Rohingya people themselves.