'It's a very fearful situation' - Four years on, the Rohingya cling to hope
Four years after they were forced to flee their homes, the Rohingya community are still facing a cycle of crisis.
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Nothing Kills Like Hunger
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people have been forced to flee their homes since the latest outbreak of violence broke out in the Rakhine State, Myanmar on 25 August 2017. Over one million Rohingya people have been forcibly displaced. More than 914,000 are currently settled on a narrow strip of hilly land below the city of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Over half of the Rohingya refugees living in Cox’s Bazar are children.
It is now almost five years since this humanitarian emergency started and the global pandemic further has complicated an already-complex situation.
Here are five things to know about the Rohingya crisis in 2022.
The Rohingya are a stateless, predominantly minority ethnic group, many of whom have lived in Myanmar’s Rakhine State for generations. Over time many families migrated to Rakhine from Bengal, an area that encompasses Bangladesh and parts of India.
Without recognition as citizens or permanent residents of the country, the Rohingya have limited access to education, jobs, and health services, resulting in chronic poverty and marginalisation. Violence targeting the Rohingya in Myanmar over the last several decades has driven hundreds of thousands of people to neighbouring countries, most notably in 1978, 1991-92, and 2016. Some return, many have lived for decades in areas like Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
An escalation in violence that began on August 25, 2017, however, became the starting point for the latest — and largest — crisis.
The Rohingya crisis has developed into a protracted emergency for both the Rohingya and Bangladeshis. Most of the camps that were set up for incoming Rohingya around Cox’s Bazar were built on uneven sandy hills that were rapidly cleared in response to the 2017 mass exodus. Since then, these informal settlements have faced the constant threats of flooding and landslides. All shelters are required to be built from bamboo and tarps, meaning that concrete and bricks can’t be used as added protection against the elements. Many have collapsed, leaving residents exposed to the elements.
Bangladesh’s main cyclone season begins in April, making this a time where Rohingya are most vulnerable. Beyond shelters facing destruction from high winds, these rainy seasons can also foster waterborne illnesses in crowded camps that don’t have proper water and sanitation facilities. This poses a risk in particular to children and the elderly.
COVID-19 has further complicated matters. Early lockdowns in Bangladesh meant that most local camp volunteers were forced to stay at home, resulting in a reduced number of staff and resources. Coronavirus reached the refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar by May 2020
Concern is one the many non-governmental organisations — both local and international — responding to the influx of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Because we have been in Bangladesh for over 40 years, had former staff members in the area, and had worked on previous projects there (including with Rohingya refugees as early as 1991), we were one of the first organisations to respond to the crisis.
Since then, we’ve maintained a combination of life-saving integrated nutrition support, livelihood development, disaster risk reduction, non-food item distributions, and home gardening initiatives. Our goal, along with many of our partners and humanitarian colleagues, is to help the Rohingya people stay healthy, care for their families, and live with as much security and dignity as possible. Three of our biggest focuses are nutrition, and safeguarding against weather-related disasters, and responding to COVID-19.
Often underreported in the coverage of any refugee crisis is the host community’s efforts to maintain their own dignity and health in such difficult circumstances. The area surrounding Cox’s Bazar had already experienced weak service provision and is a very poor area of Bangladesh. Concern’s former Country Director in Bangladesh, A.K.M. Musha, pointed out that local lives have changed significantly since this massive population flow.
“There is huge socio-economic and environmental pressure resulting in increased tension between refugees and the host community,” he said. “The tensions will continue to increase unless the host communities are supported well. It's a difficult situation for all.”
While the Bangladeshi government has gone to great lengths to accommodate the influx of refugees, the impact is being felt. As local resources go into the relief effort, the prices of goods and services are increasing, and labour becomes cheaper.
The Rohingya people don't believe the situation in Myanmar is currently conducive to repatriation. It would be very difficult for people to go back to Myanmar unless the situation improves there.
International talks over the return of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar have taken place over the last four years. A proposal to relocate an estimated 100,000 Rohingya refugees from Cox’s Bazar to an island in the Bay of Bengal, Bhasan Char (which, like much of Bangladesh, is especially vulnerable to rising sea levels) went into effect in December 2020.
Concern is working with both the Rohingya and the host communities to help address the immediate needs of the current refugee crisis. With the Rohingya, we work with refugees in five camps and we will also be extending livelihood support to the host community.
Last year alone, our work included:
Our COVID-19 response in Cox’s Bazar began with the initial lockdowns in Bangladesh. We ensured that the Rohingya refugees we support in Cox’s Bazar had a month’s supply of food, and worked with both the camp and surrounding communities to educate people on prevention and detection techniques. We also partnered with local religious leaders, who shared the messages via their microphones during prayer times. Subsequently, Concern introduced a mobile testing and referral service for those who may have been exposed to the virus. That service is available to both refugees and local residents.