Asia | Forcible displacement from conflicts
Bangladesh is one of the world's most densely populated countries and is host to the world’s largest refugee settlement in Cox’s Bazar, formed by the Rohingya people. The Rohingya people, a Muslim minority predominantly residing in Myanmar's Rakhine state, have been facing severe and consistent persecution over the years. Labelled as “the most persecuted minority in the world” by the United Nations, these forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals have been subjected to systematic discrimination and brutal human rights abuses, including forced labour, sexual violence, and extrajudicial killings.
The origins of the Rohingya crisis can be traced back to the early 20th century, marred by ethno-nationalistic policies and escalating xenophobic sentiments in Myanmar. Rohingyas were considered to be irregular migrants of Bangladesh and this culminated in a state-sponsored campaign of persecution against the Rohingya population. However, the crisis witnessed its most cataclysmic phase in August 2017. The largest exodus of Rohingya from Myanmar began in 2017, with the Myanmar military leading a coordinated campaign of violence. The scale and intensity of this violence resulted in the displacement of approximately 740,000 Rohingyas, who sought refuge in Bangladesh. The situation has continued to deteriorate, with the number of displaced Rohingyas increasing over the years. Almost a million Rohingya live in refugee camps relying entirely on humanitarian assistance for food, water, and shelter in highly congested camp settings.
In March 2023, a huge fire that wreaked havoc in the camp left thousands homeless. The bamboo-and-tarpaulin shelters pose a significant safety risk to the Rohingyas are restricted to these shelters with barbed wire fences. A Bangladesh defence ministry report stated that between January 2021 and December 2022, there were 222 fire incidents in the camps. From April to November, heavy monsoon rains lead to floods leaving the refugees in the overcrowded camps homeless and displaced once again.
The Rohingya crisis is a profound humanitarian disaster characterised by mass displacement. With the UN stating that it has been forced to cut food rations for Rohingya refugees by 17% due to diminishing international donations and an increase in gender-based violence in the camps, the crisis seems to be escalating. There has been rising international pressure on Myanmar’s authorities to end the repression and pressure on the host country to develop a viable strategy.
The Rohingya crisis has elicited divergent responses from the Myanmar and Bangladesh governments. Myanmar, accused of perpetrating the crisis, remained in denial, while Bangladesh rose to the humanitarian challenge despite its resource constraints. Myanmar's government have consistently denied the ethnic cleansing allegations, asserting that its military operations were merely counter-terrorism efforts targeted at the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). This Rohingya insurgent group that claims to seek to defend, salvage and protect the Rohingya against state repression. Bangladesh, a relatively small but highly populated country with resource limitations, granted asylum to the Rohingya refugees, accommodating the largest concentration of Rohingyas globally.
Bangladesh established the Kutupalong refugee camps and the government has provided basic amenities such as shelter, food, healthcare, education, and sanitation in collaboration with international donors and humanitarian actors. However, Bangladeshi policies have constrained the ability to obtain formal education or pursue employment opportunities. The Bangladeshi government has also relocated refugees to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal known as Bhasan Char, with the government making claims that it has been voluntary and through consent. However, there have been reports of refugees who have made attempts to flee the island. The Bangladesh government has considered Bhasan Char a solution to the problem of severe overcrowding in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.
The scale of the influx has put an unprecedented strain on Bangladesh's resources and infrastructure, and has had consequent socioeconomic impacts on the host communities as they compete for limited natural resources. Furthermore, the Rohingya community has been often viewed as a threat contributing to the rise in violence and drug trafficking in the country. UNHCR along with the Bangladesh government has launched a Joint Response Plan for 2023 to appeal to donor partners for funding to meet the needs of Rohingyas and the local communities hosting them.
Nevertheless, with the deterioration of safety in the camps, donor fatigue, the country’s own competing financial and social crises, coupled with the possible scapegoating of refugees by host communities in the upcoming 2024 election, the country has initiated talks with Myanmar for a repatriation pilot project. This project has generated massive controversy with UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, advising Bangladesh to suspend the program.
The Rohingya crisis has sparked a global humanitarian response, with numerous international organisations providing crucial aid. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), and the World Food Programme (WFP) are leading the humanitarian response. These organisations provide food aid, healthcare, shelter, and mental health support. Additionally, NGOs such as Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Save the Children, and BRAC, a Bangladesh-based organisation, have been continuously bolstering these efforts. Furthermore, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), has been constantly working to ensure the rights and welfare of Rohingya children – more than half of the refugees in the camps are under 18, and 75% are women and children.
The overall total incoming funding has been US$316,465,567, with pledges of US$1,170,331 from international organisations and states for the crisis. Recently, the UN has allocated $9 million from its funds as it faced dwindling donor aid. UNHCR, IOM, UNFPA, UNICEF and WFP are conducting their operations based on this amount. In addition to this, after the arrival of the Rohingyas, a large part of Cox’s Bazar’s forest was deforested. The areas around the Rohingya camps are being re-greened, and afforested and Sweden has been supporting this programme under the leadership of the IOM since 2019. South Korea has provided more than $23 million in aid to the Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar. Japan has provided over $200 million to IOM and other agencies and NGOs in Bangladesh. A $4.5 million agreement was signed between the Japanese government and UNHCR to continue humanitarian aid. The US has announced $26 million in new humanitarian aid for the Rohingyas. Along with this assistance, the total US aid given to the Rohingyas since August 2017 is $2.1 billion. Currently, the 2023 Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis plan appeals for $876 million to reach 1.47 million people. The Joint Response Plan brings together 116 partners, almost half being national organisations.
This influx of refugees poses several risks for Bangladesh, with the government balancing the humanitarian obligation and the strain on resources. The tensions between the Bangladeshi population and Rohingya refugees primarily stem from competition for limited resources, such as land, food, water, and healthcare. It has also led to tensions in Bangladesh's diplomatic relations with Myanmar, convoluting bilateral ties and regional diplomacy.
There is a threat to national security: the rising anti-Rohingya sentiment may lead to violence in the upcoming elections, criminal activities have substantially increased in the camps, including kidnapping for ransom, trafficking, and small arms trade, impacting the local community. There is the threat of the refugees being recruited by extremists in exchange for shelter, food and money, and the risk of attacks from the ARSA, who can potentially be against a non-violent resolution. Refugee camps have already witnessed the presence of ARSA soldiers.
These risks are not limited to Bangladesh but have spillover effects for the region and the potential to destabilise the geopolitical dynamics. ASEAN member states are already at the crossroads of whether they should interfere. There could be outflows to other countries as thousands of Rohingya attempted sea crossings in the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal to reach other countries leading to colossal losses of lives, trafficking, and the spread of radicalised elements.
UN reports state that conditions under the military junta in Myanmar are not conducive to the safe return of Rohingya, complicating matters further.
With the global economic slowdown, the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, and all the other crises around the world, funding is likely to continue to be cut, and the situation in the camps will worsen. More refugees will attempt to flee the camps by sea. They will more likely fall victim to exploitation, trafficking, crime, and gender-based violence. Crime in the camps has risen sharply and will likely continue to rise, including murder, kidnapping, rape, robbery, human trafficking, and drug smuggling. According to Bangladeshi police data, the number of murders reached 31 in 2022, the highest figure in at least five years. This figure is expected to increase further.
Additionally, all this could fuel religious tensions and exacerbate tensions between refugees and host communities. Host communities feel that they are losing jobs to the refugees willing to work for lower wages and that the increase in crime due to the gangs formed by refugees is hindering their lifestyle, which could lead to reprisals. Furthermore, there have been reports of extortion and arbitrary arrests of Rohingya refugees by Bangladesh’s Armed Police Battalion, which handles security in the camps. This escalation of violence against the refugees will likely escalate during the 2024 general elections when communities will blame the Rohingya for expediency.
Bangladesh is already in a perilous situation due to its domestic politics and, given its limited resources, will face massive socio-economic repercussions as aid from around the world is reduced, and its relationship with the US is currently fragile, making it more challenging to support the refugees and quell tensions with the locals.
Myanmar has come under intense international scrutiny since Gambia took the country to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), accusing Myanmar of violating the Genocide Convention, which could potentially lead to economic sanctions and the withdrawal of investment. The effectiveness of the legal mechanism has yet to be assessed. Given the protracted nature of the crisis, it could lead to the “warehousing” of refugees in camps, with no opportunities for socio-economic mobility.