Challenges for Rohingya Refugees: Towards a New Strategy

By: Manzoor Hasan

June 9, 2023

Religion and the Crisis of Displaced Persons: The Rohingya

The Challenge

More than five years down the road, the outstanding generosity of the Bangladeshi host community and international partnerships have allowed a million Rohingya refugees to survive in Bangladesh. But they themselves and their hosts face growing discontent. There is thus a need to re-think and re-strategize. We need not start from the beginning but work to find new, credible entry points. This essay offers some thoughts and outside-the-box thinking, aimed at generating some scenarios, looking more at the big picture than at immediate issues.

The Rohingya situation needs to be viewed in the light of global trends and notably the growing numbers of forcibly displaced people, to some 103 million worldwide, as of mid-2022. Some 74% are hosted by low- and middle-income countries (data as of October 2022), and the average length of displacement is 20 years. The Bangladesh Rohingya context is complex, with the different waves of Rohingya refugee arrivals in Bangladesh. The challenge is thus a protracted and layered situation.

  • 1942 influx: 22,000
  • 1978 influx: 200,000
  • 1991-1992 influx: 250,000
  • 2017: 742,000

The Present Refugee Scenario

Today almost all Rohingya refugees are living in refugee camps. But in some sense, this is a forgotten crisis. 

Several pertinent factors aggravate the situation. 

  • There has been a sharp decline in funds: The Joint Response Plan (JRP) for 2019 showed $650 million raised out of the $921 million requested (70%). The JRP of 2022: $378 million raised out of $881 million required (43%). Among the causes are competing crises, such as war in Ukraine, natural calamities, and the global economic crises.
  • This means that 45% of Rohingya families are not eating a sufficient diet. On March 1, 2023, the World Food Program, citing a $125m donation shortfall, cut the monthly food vouchers from $12 to $10 per person. 
  • The situation is worsening in the camps. There is growing frustration and violence; trafficking of women and girls is rising. There is huge, palpable desperation, and refugees are seeking new places. 

Potential supporters and allies have few constructive responses. Elections are approaching in many countries. There is a lack of coordination among countries and multilateral partners. National and collective interests are different and at times conflicting. 

ASEAN, an important potential regional leader, seems paralyzed. The UN is hiding behind ASEAN. Some suggest that the UN is being taken for a ride.

It is Time to Re-think and Re-strategize

The situation calls for us to step back and look at the broader picture, but also to look to the shifting on-the-ground reality, particularly within Myanmar. It is wise to bear in mind the reality that there will be no shortcuts, given the complexities of the Myanmar situation, particularly since the coup in Myanmar two years ago. In Rakhine State, a long-standing and highly discriminatory apartheid system remains in existence. 

It is unlikely that there is any silver bullet, as we are dealing with a highly complex situation in Myanmar as a whole, given the long history of ethnic conflicts

The ideas I am proposing can be taken up by different actors—from global to regional to national.

Revisiting the 2017 Kofi Annan Commission report is a good starting point. Its key recommendations for action in Rakhine State called for: 

  • Investing heavily in infrastructure such as roads, electricity, drinking water, and internet access to help lift both communities out of poverty.
  • Ensuring local communities’ increased participation in decision-making on issues relating to development.
  • Creating a path to citizenship for the Rohingya—a very critical element in order to re-establish trust and pursue sustainable solutions to the ongoing ethnic conflict.
  • Enhancing freedom of movement, which is presently missing in Rakhine despite international condemnation.

This points to a process to instigate a calibrated response that combines political, developmental, security, and human rights approaches; addresses the root causes of violence; and reduces intercommunal tensions. The Commission’s Terms of Reference specified that all the recommendations had to be in line with international law, including human rights law. The report’s authors described it as a “living document.” 

The eventual safe and voluntary return of the Rohingya from Bangladesh will depend greatly upon the Rakhine population’s acceptance of the Rohingya as a whole.

These and other relevant recommendations should serve as the foundation for future actions. They were widely accepted by the UN membership; there is thus a high level of consensus at the international level. They can be used as a guideline for future work.

Given this situation, another Annan-type report would not be useful, but the report can serve as the basis for follow-up, building on it and taking into account the new elements. For example, on the issue of citizenship, the National Unity Government (NUG) has adopted an approach that goes beyond what was possible in 2017 when the report first appeared. 

A global or UN initiative to undertake a time-bound assessment of the present situation and to suggest concrete action points for the international community could contribute to the re-strategizing process.

The Bigger (Regional) Picture

An integrated review of the present Rohingya situation would take into account the following:

  • The continuously shifting geopolitical landscape and regional action (or rather inaction). 
  • An emphasis on diplomacy, dialogue, and engagement to protect the interests of all parties involved.
  • A collective action required in an era of polycrisis and interconnected global challenges.

Such a review could and should be undertaken at the regional level, highlighting the emerging/changing regional geopolitical situation. The aim would be to identify, for different players (state and non-state), entry points for constructive engagements rather than ad hoc arrangements that give rise to new controversies and conflicts. It is vital to ensure Rohingya voice and representation. The UN Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) acknowledges that "[r]esponses are most effective when they actively and meaningfully engage those they are intended to protect and assist." There is a need to explore different forums such as BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), made up of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, or even a smaller, like-minded group.

A Grounded Myanmar/Rakhine-Specific Approach

The changing political and security landscape in post-coup Myanmar, particularly Rakhine State, must be considered.

Rakhine is a very different place now compared to 2017. The Arakan Army (AA) is a very important and critical actor now. It is also difficult to access the main current players in Rakhine, such as AA, the Rohingya community, political parties of the ethnic Rakhine community, civil society organizations, and other stakeholders. We need to consider their common future. Given the fact that the Rohingya will return to Rakhine as part of an overall safe return arrangement, there is a need to work with the different actors in Rakhine. That means identifying old and emerging actors as system-critical or part of the solution or enlightened self-interest. Developing a good working relationship with them is important.

The process should be broad, inclusive, and transparent.

These points are critical because the Rohingya can only return to Rakhine if the conditions are right. Therefore, repatriation cannot be seen as a one-off act (as is the case in point with the pilot repatriation), but as an outcome of a multi-stakeholder engagement process, including the participation of the Rohingya themselves, both in Bangladesh and Rakhine. The international community cannot wash its hands of this responsibility but has to address the root causes of the plight of the Rohingya.

Bangladesh’s Role

Enacting a legal/national framework for cohesive and orderly handling of the refugee situation does not mean ratifying the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol. The national legal framework needs to focus on education, skills, and livelihood development of Rohingyas to support a sustainable existence in Bangladesh and post-repatriation outside Bangladesh. 

Giving Rohingya refugees the right to work in Bangladesh, so that they could be incorporated into the labor market, should be conditional upon the injection of a huge amount of new donor funds into the Bangladesh market to jump-start this process. Job compact arrangements are to be explored. Economic and social integration can be achieved if the host community is made to understand the economic benefits of allowing the Rohingya people to formally and lawfully take part in the local economy, and that doing so would not undermine the social fabric of the region.

We must recognize that nothing much will happen prior to the national elections in January 2024, but preparatory activities could start as soon as possible.

Remember: No silver bullet!

EDITOR'S NOTE: This blog post reflects comments during a closed-door symposium on the Rohingya situation held May 4, 2023, in Washington, DC, at Georgetown University. It represents the author's personal thoughts and do not represent the views of the organizations he represents or is involved with.

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