More than 700,000 Rohingya refugees have arrived in Bangladesh since 25 August 2017 fleeing violence and persecution in Rakhine State, Myanmar. Over a million are sheltering in overcrowded camps without adequate assistance or protection. Stateless in Myanmar and denied refugee status in Bangladesh, the Rohingya have few rights or freedoms. Monsoons and cyclones are causing landslides, destroying shelters and infrastructure and disrupting services.
This edition of Humanitarian Exchange focuses on the humanitarian response to the Rohingya crisis. In the lead article, Mark Bowden outlines the historical, local and national political context in Bangladesh, and its operational implications. Amal de Chickera highlights the links between statelessness and displacement, and the international community’s failure to prioritise human rights in its dealings both with Bangladesh and with Myanmar. Puttanee Kangkun and John Quinley document the persistent persecution and denial of rights the Rohingya have faced for decades. Jeff Crisp reflects on the premature, involuntary and unsafe return of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar in the 1970s and 1990s, and asks whether this could happen again.
Sally Shevach and colleagues explore how the ‘localisation’ agenda has influenced the operational response, and Kerrie Holloway draws on research by the Humanitarian Policy Group to test the common assumption that local actors necessarily have a better understanding of people’s needs. Nasif Rashad Khan and colleagues and Ashish Banik reflect on their experiences of engaging with the international humanitarian response system. Margie Buchanan-Smith and Marian Casey-Maslen discuss evaluation findings relating to communication and community engagement, a theme taken up by Nick Van Praag and Kai Hopkins, who report on a Ground Truth survey on refugees’ perceptions of assistance. Julia Brothwell discusses the British Red Cross/Bangladesh Red Crescent involvement in disaster preparedness and risk reduction during the monsoon season, and Gina Bark, Kate White and Amelie Janon outline the consequences of long-term exclusion from basic healthcare services in increasing vulnerability to preventable diseases. Matthew Wencel and colleagues round off the issue with reflections on data collection coordination and other challenges associated with monitoring large concentrations of refugees. ##
Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh: the humanitarian response
The current context to the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh
By Mark Bowden
In the few weeks between August and October 2017, approximately 600,000 Rohingya people from Myanmar moved into the neighbouring border areas of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. There they joined existing Rohingya communities, bringing the total to 900,000, one of the largest concentrations of refugees in the world. Accommodated in makeshift camps, the Rohingya outnumber the local population by two to one in the two upazilas (administrative areas) of Teknaf and Ukiah. The size of the influx seized global attention and the international response was rapidly escalated to a Level 3 emergency, mobilising the tools and resources required to respond to an emergency of this scale.
Over the past year, the emphasis of humanitarian operations has been to avert further catastrophe. The risk of mass epidemics and outbreaks of diarrheal disease was high as a result of the rapidity and scale of the movement, people’s poor physical and nutritional state, with little access to healthcare or vaccination in Myanmar, and above all the overcrowding in camps located in difficult terrain prone to mudslides. Mass deaths have so far been averted and shelter and basic services have been provided. Given the challenges of scale and time these are no mean achievements.
Over the next year of humanitarian support, the historical, local and national political context within which this major relief operation is taking place will continue to influence coordination structures and create operational constraints. The political imperative within Bangladesh to treat the Rohingya influx as a temporary crisis, with the repatriation of new arrivals as the main goal, limits longer-term planning and infrastructural investment and creates mounting challenges to the protection and wellbeing of the Rohingya population in Bangladesh. The response to the crisis also raises the question how far commitments made at the World Humanitarian Summit and within the Grand Bargain can be met when responding to Level 3 emergencies.
Coordination and localisation
The scale and speed of the expulsion of the Rohingya into Bangladesh put a complex humanitarian crisis at the centre of international attention. In accepting international assistance, the Bangladesh government allowed in large numbers of foreign relief workers from international agencies and NGOs. While Bangladesh has developed effective internal structures for and approaches to the coordination of natural disaster response, it is ill-prepared to deal with a large-scale, internationalised, complex emergency. Emergency structures have focused on local government and the Bangladesh army, and are not well aligned with international coordination structures such as the cluster/sectoral approach of the Humanitarian Country Task Team, nor is there the necessary civil–military coordination structure in place to ensure effective engagement with the military, which is responsible for supervising the importation and logistics of relief supplies.
The political context has added further complexity to the operational challenges involved in the response. While relations between political parties and civil society have always been fraught, the past two years have seen increasing attempts to control and limit the influence of civil society. International NGOs have been treated with equal suspicion. The Foreign Donations (voluntary activities) Regulation Act of 2016 introduced tighter controls on financing and enhanced processes for the registration of NGOs, delaying project approvals, slowing down implementation and severely restricting international engagement with local civil society organisations.
From the outset of the crisis, foreign policy considerations – namely Bangladesh’s desire to see the early repatriation of the Rohingya – played a major role in determining the initial response, and in the development of coordination structures at both national level and in Cox’s Bazar. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has taken the lead in coordinating the government response and in determining the nature of international coordination. Rohingya arrivals are not regarded as refugees, which meant that the International Organization for Migration (IOM), rather than the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), was initially given operational leadership. The coordination structure that developed in the months after the influx began put the focus of operational coordination in the hands of an Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) comprising Bangladesh government departments, UN agencies and operational NGOs structured around eight sectoral working groups supported and led by a senior coordinator and secretariat based in Cox’s Bazar. National-level guidance to the ISCG is provided by a Strategic Executive Group (SEG) co-chaired by the Resident Coordinator and the heads of IOM and UNHCR. Membership includes UN agencies, international NGOs (INGOs) (BRAC, Action Contre la Faim (ACF), Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and Save the Children) and the Red Cross/ Red Crescent Movement (ICRC and IFRC).
The complexity of this two-tier coordination structure has required strong collaboration between all those involved. However, distinctions between local and national coordination and disparity of support between the two poses a challenge to maintaining the strategic direction and coherence of relief efforts. The withdrawal of the OCHA office at the beginning of the crisis and the lack of designation of a Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) have also left the response without some of the more important coordination tools, including for financial tracking and information management, cluster/sectoral coordination and pooled funding, which would normally support a more strategic approach to coordination and provide the ability to identify gaps in response, deploy pooled funding to support localisation and address key funding gaps. Concerns have been raised over the ‘projectised’ approach inherent in these coordination structures, where local and international NGOs alike feel treated as subcontractors rather than partners. Local NGO participation at the sectoral level is further squeezed by the large number and high turnover of international staff.
While a new NGO platform has been established and a roadmap for localisation is planned, challenges in terms of resource mobilisation, sectoral funding and establishing appropriate and realistic time-frames and effective physical and site planning will require strong internal coherence and work across and between sectoral groupings. One way of addressing these challenges would be to look at how best to streamline and develop coordination tools that strike the right balance between strategic and operational coordination and ensure greater coherence through a more programmatic and less project-based response.