SEATTLE — Since August 2017, Bangladesh has accepted approximately 693,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, more than half of whom are children. Hundreds more arrive each week, fleeing state-sponsored violence against their ethnic group. Many Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh live in overcrowded settlements, while others reside within local communities. Their presence has greatly impacted Bangladesh and its citizens, and organizations including UNHCR, UNICEF and Oxfam are working diligently to improve their conditions and find a long-term solution to this crisis.
The Struggle to Accommodate Large Numbers of Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh
Seventy-three percent of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are living in spontaneous settlements, while 13 percent live in makeshift settlements, 9 percent reside among host communities and a mere 5 percent live in official refugee camps. Most of the refugees are living in Kutupalong-Balukhali, the largest refugee camp in the world, located within Cox’s Bazar, a district along the coast of Bangladesh that borders Myanmar. In two areas within Cox’s Bazar, Ukhia and Teknaf, refugees now outnumber locals two to one.
Bangladesh is both overcrowded and under-resourced, making it unable to adequately support the large number of refugees within its borders. In the hopes of preventing the Rohingya from staying long-term, Bangladesh has banned the creation of permanent settlements and is ensuring that within local camps, the Rohingya are educated in English and Burmese, not Bengali.
Hard-pressed to find a solution, Bangladesh’s prime minister Sheikh Hasina has been working with Myanmar, and the two countries came to an agreement in November 2017 under which Myanmar would repatriate the Rohingya.
However, many Rohingya refugees are reluctant to go back without a guarantee of citizenship, safety and security. According to a UNICEF article, one 19-year-old refugee stated that she would “rather die in Bangladesh than be forced to return to Myanmar.” And despite assurances that Myanmar will allow the Rohingya to come back, little progress has been made, and Bangladesh officials are skeptical about Myanmar’s willingness to follow through with the agreement.
International Groups Initiate Multi-Faceted Efforts to Address Refugee Crisis
To help Bangladesh find long-term solutions, the Center for Global Development has published a brief recommending that the nation find ways to “look beyond aid” in its plan to handle the refugee crisis. To keep Bangladesh’s economy strong, the center recommends expanding trade preferences with the European Union, as well as increasing opportunities for migrant workers. It may also be advantageous for Bangladesh to partner with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which finances energy projects and could expand programs to include provisions for Rohingya employment.
Other organizations have focused more directly on the needs of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh by providing life-saving services and supplies. UNICEF has been on the ground in Bangladesh, helping the government provide cholera vaccines to 900,000 children and adults and malnutrition screenings to approximately 263,000 children.
Additionally, UNICEF has dug hundreds of bore wells and installed thousands of latrines in the area to ensure access to water and sanitation systems. It has also created learning and recreation spaces for children, which have been expanded as the number of refugees has increased, but have unfortunately not been able to service everyone.
Oxfam has also been supporting the Rohingya refugees, concentrating primarily on sanitation and health. Oxfam is constructing a large sewage facility that will serve up to 100,000 people, as well as drilling wells, installing toilets and showers, providing chlorinated water and distributing soap and other hygiene products.
With the help of community volunteers, Oxfam has also been working to educate refugees on the importance of clean water and good hygiene, and has provided 23,000 households with vouchers for nutritious foods that can be used at local markets. Oxfam estimates that it has currently reached 240,000 Rohingya refugees.
Anticipating the Future Needs of Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh
In June 2018, UNHCR and the Bangladesh government began formally registering Rohingya refugees, collecting family and birth details, fingerprints and iris scans. The plan is to use this data to aid in the repatriation process, although the white registration cards refugees receive explicitly state that they are “protected from forcible return to a country where he/she would face threats to his/her life or freedom,” according to Reuters.
Registration will also help aid agencies, as they need to know how many refugees are in Bangladesh in order to provide adequate supplies. This is especially imperative now, as 200,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are under threat of anticipated monsoon rains and cyclonic storms this summer.
Approximately 900 shelters and 200 latrines have already been destroyed as of July 3, 2018. Most settlements are made of plastic sheets and bamboo, neither of which hold up against severe weather conditions. Aid groups are working to move families to safer ground, but the sheer number of refugees makes this a difficult task. There is also a growing concern about the spread of waterborne diseases, including cholera, with the increased precipitation and flooding.
According to UNHCR, conditions in Myanmar are not yet safe for the Rohingya to return. Even if Myanmar does repatriate the refugees and give them rights and citizenship, it remains to be seen whether they will be willing to go back. With an uncertain future, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh continue to rely on humanitarian assistance, which can help them make the most of their current situation.
– Sara Olk