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Dignity and the displaced Rohingya in Bangladesh

Working papers

Written by Kerrie Holloway, Lilianne Fan

Hero image description: On International Women’s Day 2017 in Kutupalong, UN Women encouraged Rohingya women and girls to write their wishes on kites and fly them. Image credit:© UN Women/Allison Joyce Image license:CC BY-NC-ND

At the beginning of 2017, Rakhine State in Myanmar was home to almost one million stateless people, almost all of whom self-identified as Rohingya. The violence that caused more than 720,000 Rohingya to flee across the Teknaf River to the district of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh in August 2017 was rooted in centuries of shifting power dynamics, migration and fluid boundaries and decades of systematic discrimination and persecution of the Rohingya Muslim population by the Myanmar government and military. The Rohingya displacement is one of the most protracted in the world, and the Rohingya community the single largest stateless group worldwide. The first influx of refugees arrived in Bangladesh in 1978 and camp settlements have been a continuous presence in the country since the 1990s.

This case study is part of a two-year project by HPG looking at dignity in displacement. Dignity is a pervasive concept in current international humanitarian discourse. Mentioned in all foundational human rights documents and central to humanitarian principles, it is often invoked in the context of modern humanitarian action. Yet, most humanitarian agencies do not know what the affected community’s idea of dignity is, nor do they provide their own definition or evaluate if and how they are supporting it.

The goal of this case study, therefore, is to explore how Rohingya refugees perceive dignity and whether they believe the humanitarian response in Bangladesh is upholding or undermining their dignity. As one interviewee, a 24-year-old man, born and raised in Nayapara, asserted: ‘Dignity is a very huge thing in this world. If a person does not have dignity, he has no reason to live’.

What is clear through this research is that the Rohingya interviewees conceptualise dignity consistently, although not homogenously. But their conceptions do not always correlate with those of the interviewed humanitarian actors, who tend to use ‘dignity’ as a synonym for the type of aid they are giving. This does not mean that the current displacement response is undignified, only that there are contrasting definitions of what dignified aid is. The study concludes with recommendations for making the humanitarian response more dignified, according to the concept of dignity put forth by the Rohingya interviewees.

Kerrie Holloway and Lilianne Fan