Bangladesh has been generously hosting Rohingya refugees from Myanmar for decades, with more than 740,000 people fleeing Myanmar since August 2017. This exodus was the fastest and largest in the Asia region for nearly 50 years since the millions of Bangladeshis fled into India, escaping military violence and persecution at home. With conflict persisting in many parts of the world, today we are witnessing the highest displacement ever recorded.

Reflecting on their own history, the Bangladeshi people have responded to the Rohingya influx with a strong humanitarian spirit, often sharing their homes, food and land with the Rohingya community in bordering areas of Cox’s Bazar. Forests – many regreened – have been cleared for refugee accommodation and authorities have been deployed in their thousands to manage the camps. One of the world’s largest humanitarian responses has been established to support the refugees and the most impacted Bangladeshis.

Most refugees from Bangladesh’s Liberation War of 1971 were able to return home safely in a matter of months. In contrast, the Rohingya community have not yet found a solution to their plight despite their strong desire to do so. Most Rohingya have now entered their fifth year in exile in Bangladesh. Year on year, challenges have grown, exacerbated by the covid-19 pandemic, natural disaster risks and security concerns.

As the world comes to grips with managing the covid-19 pandemic, the international community must now ‘enhance its focus to find a durable solution to the Rohingya crisis,’ as Bangladesh’s Prime Minister said at the 2021 United Nations General Assembly.

Home is where the heart is

The political situation in Myanmar became especially complex after the military takeover of the country in March 2021.  By the end of 2021, the humanitarian situation has deteriorated, with more than 220,000 people freshly internally displaced in the country and some 20,000 having fled across borders. Whatever the issues in Myanmar, they can never be fully addressed until the Rohingya situation is solved and the Rohingya community can live there safely and freely.

A Rohingya kid looks over a community garden in Kutupalong refugee camp, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, August 2021. | Photo by UNHCR

Like most people forced to leave their homes, Rohingya refugees maintain a strong intent to return to Myanmar. This strong intent was one of the most conclusive findings of a recent survey by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In the survey, some 3,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and across the Asia region were asked about their perspectives for the future. The survey revealed a strong feeling of belonging and a desire to return home. One refugee respondent said, ‘Myanmar is my home and the country to which I am the most connected.’

One Rohingya refugee respondent said, ‘Myanmar is my home and the country to which I am the most connected.’

For returns to be successful, the conditions in Myanmar need to be safe and dignified. Most importantly, the Rohingya community’s rights must be respected. These were the kind of conditions that enabled large refugee groups to sustainably return home in the past, including Bangladeshi refugees after the 1971 War. In the 1970s and 1990s, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees returned from Bangladesh to Myanmar. Many refugees have, however, since been forced back following recent violence, reinforcing the need to address the root causes of this crisis once and for all.

Cross-border collaboration

Another key finding of the UNHCR survey among Rohingya refugees was that the vast majority of those wanting to return want to do so under a formal repatriation mechanism organised by Myanmar and Bangladesh, and supported by the UN. These mechanisms were established early on into the crisis. Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an arrangement on returns, as well as separate agreements with the UN to support the voluntary repatriation process and help create conditions for return in Myanmar. These agreements remain crucial to a successful repatriation process, but the confidence and trust of refugees also needs to be built.

The solution to the Rohingya crisis remains in Myanmar. There are several practical ways refugees’ confidence could be developed for their return. For instance, the verification of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh could be expedited so that their residence in Myanmar is recognised. By the end of 2021, less than 5% of refugees had been verified for return.

The reasons refugees say they are reluctant to return to Myanmar – such as their lack of safety, citizenship and freedom of movement – could be addressed for the more than half a million refugees that remain. Moreover, the internally displaced Rohingya population in central Rakhine State – totalling more than 100,000 people – should be able to return to their homes, after more than seven years confined to harsh displacement camps.

In parallel, the international community has an essential role to play in solving the Rohingya situation. In the spirit of the Global Compact on Refugees, which provides a framework for more predictable and equitable responsibility-sharing, it is clear that a sustainable solution to refugee situations cannot be achieved without international cooperation.

The 2021’s UN General Assembly resolution on the situation for the Rohingya community reinforces this principle. The resolution passed for the first time without a vote, reconfirming the need to support the Rohingya on an international level, as well as the need for countries like Bangladesh to find solutions, including hosting and proper funding for the refugee response.

Statements from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), an intergovernmental body, have also reconfirmed the regional political commitment to addressing the Rohingya situation. ASEAN has encouraged the Secretary-General of the Association to identify areas that could facilitate the repatriation process. The two Special Envoys on Myanmar – one appointed by the UN Secretary General and the other the ASEAN Chair – will also continue to play a central role in making progress on repatriation and keeping the Rohingya issue high on the regional and international agenda.

In the meantime

While the search for solutions continues, the situation in the camps in Cox’s Bazar – the largest and most densely populated human settlement in the world – remains precarious. The main challenges are as follows: the limited movement of refugees between the camps; the need to increase security issues and the shrinking funding and attention for the crisis. The situation in the camps was considerably exacerbated by the covid-19 pandemic-induced measures, which resulted in humanitarian services being restricted for months. However, by the end of 2021, most of these services have been restored as the situation has gradually stabilised.

Against this backdrop, Rohingya refugees also continue to seek better futures for themselves by undertaking risky boat journeys. 2020 was the deadliest year on record for refugees crossing the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Of the 2,413 people known to have travelled in 2020, 218 died or went missing. There remains an urgent, lifesaving need for cross-country mechanisms for the rescue and disembarkation of refugees in distress at sea.

Thriving, not just surviving

The status quo in the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar will only likely lead to more challenges. Rohingya refugees – half of whom are under the age of 18 – require essential services. But they also need to develop skills, support their families and prepare themselves for the future. Reinforcing these challenges, the second finding of the UNHCR survey was that the Rohingya were most concerned about their education, skills development and livelihoods while seeking refuge.

Without opportunities, refugees lose hope, dignity and ambition for their futures.

Without opportunities, refugees lose hope, dignity and ambition for their futures. This situation leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Providing opportunities does not necessarily mean refugees will stay in a host country like Bangladesh. One female refugee highlighted in mid-2021, ‘even if we [Rohingya refugees] received better facilities in another country to live a better life, going back to our own country would be the best choice for us.’ This is a view shared by many Rohingya.

Bangladesh has been generous in allowing basic education and small-scale skills programmes in the camps since the onset of the crisis. The authorities have also permitted the Rohingyas to volunteer. For years, the Rohingya volunteers have remained the backbone of service provision for their communities in the camps, particularly in light of the covid-19 induced restrictions.

Under the Bangladesh Government’s leadership, a skills programme is also being developed to support refugees and host communities, which will be a positive development. The rollout of the Myanmar education curriculum – initially on a pilot basis – has also begun. Taken together, these steps will be critical to prepare refugees for their return. They will also help the refugees maintain cultural, linguistic and historical ties to their country, while keeping them safe and productive while seeking refuge.

Livelihood opportunities could also benefit the refugees in the next phase of the response. Nearly half of all Rohingya refugees whom UNHCR surveyed believe they are skilled for some occupations but are not able to utilise those skills. Professional activities could be initiated on a pilot basis in the camps, with opportunities for both refugees as well as for local Bangladeshis in the vicinity.

 

Outside of the camps, by the end of 2021, the Bangladeshi authorities have already relocated some 20,000 of Rohingya refugees to the island of Bhasan Char, generously investing in its development and infrastructure. Recognising the humanitarian needs of refugees on the island, and following an agreement reached in October 2021, the UN is now supporting essential services on the island. The authorities have also permitted occupation, education and skills activities for the refugees on the island. With the right approach and planning, these measures can be successfully aid refugees’ situation, while keeping their return to Myanmar in mind for the future.

Alternative solutions for Rohingya refugees should also be considered in the next phase of the response. They include resettlement to third countries for the most vulnerable and at-risk refugees, as well as complementary pathways for overseas employment and scholarship opportunities. Such efforts could not only help share responsibility and support the most vulnerable Rohingya, but also aid skilled Rohingya to secure their futures.

Respecting individuals 

The last conclusive finding of the 2021 UNHCR study was that Rohingya refugees express myriad views on their intentions and concerns. The views differed based on gender, age, family status and whether they have a disability. Understanding these voices helps lay the ground for solutions, as well as the next phase of the humanitarian response in Bangladesh.

In the findings, women are more likely to live and return together with family members. Older refugees tend to distrust the Myanmar authorities as a barrier to return. Unlike younger age groups, older refugees who wish to reside in third countries are primarily driven by the presence of family members. Meanwhile, most children under 18 who wish to return to Myanmar are more recent arrivals. The young express a strong emotional attachment to their homeland and a hope to live in less crowded conditions upon return.

Ensuring proper representation and the participation of refugees will be key to finding solutions. This can be supported through regular dialogue between Rohingya refugees and relevant authorities – whether in Bangladesh or in Myanmar.

History has taught us that refugee problems can be solved, providing there is the political will to do so. The repatriation of the Bangladeshi refugees in 1971 provides a clear example of such will. To achieve solutions for Rohingya refugees, both political and humanitarian action must be sustained and refugee voices must be central to the response. Ultimately, as long as there are Rohingya in Bangladesh, a hope for their future – which for most refugees lies in a return to Myanmar – must be encouraged.

 

Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu

Bernard Doyle
Bernard Doyle is Deputy Regional Director for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)’s Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific. He is a development worker. He has held positions as the UNHCR Regional Representative in Central Asia, the UNHCR Representative in Iran and Head of UNHCR’s Inter-Agency Unit. Since the 1990s, he has been involved with the Rohingya situation and Bangladesh. He pursued his graduate studies in development economics at Imperial College London, UK.