Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 21 October 2019

Two years on, the Rohingya and their Bangladeshi hosts are under extreme pressure​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

It is essential the international community steps up to help the 900,000 refugees living in desperate circumstances with little food or income

This week marks two years since the latest – and by far the largest – exodus of Rohingya people into Bangladesh. On August 25, 2017, thousands of Rohingya people, mostly women and children, fled targeted violence and systemic human rights violations in Myanmar in search of safety in neighbouring Bangladesh. Within a few months, about 745,000 members of the Rohingya community found themselves refugees in a foreign land. Prior to that, tens of thousands more were uprooted from their homeland in successive waves of displacement over the years. As a result, more than 900,000 Rohingya people are now refugees in Cox’s Bazar, which hosts the densest and most populated refugee camp in the world.

For any mass displacement crisis, the humanitarian community’s ultimate goal is to ensure the voluntary return of displaced people to their homes in safety and dignity. But until the optimal conditions are available for the Rohingya’s safe and dignified return to their homes in Myanmar, it is very important that the international community’s response to increasing humanitarian needs in and around refugee camps is enhanced, and that efforts to strengthen food security in the refugee camp and within the host community are boosted to preserve gains achieved in other areas like nutrition, health, education, employment, livelihoods and women’s empowerment.

From the killing fields to exile without hope
How Myanmar's persecuted Rohingya minority is struggling for the right to return home
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Let’s make no mistake here: no community should be made entirely dependent on humanitarian assistance forever. The Rohingya refugees and their Bangladeshi host community need more than just ongoing dependence on the assistance provided by the international community. While a permanent and sustainable political and human rights solution to the crisis might take time to materialise, the community needs support that enables them to live with dignity and self-respect. They need to regain hope in a better, safer and stable future. They need to be equipped with the right skills and given opportunities that make them feel empowered. The support we provide must lead them to feel more in control of their situation, enjoying a sense of responsibility for their own wellbeing and that of their families.

Experience in various other refugee settings has demonstrated that when refugees are equipped with the right skills, their contribution to their host communities can be unparalleled. Investing in refugees is an investment in their future and that of their host community as well. It is therefore important that we build economic independence of the Rohingya people through specialised training and skill development that they can use to build livelihoods, such as those launched by the World Food Programme (WFP) in the camps.

These include initiatives such as vegetable gardening, tailoring, solar panel repair and aquaculture training. Such programmes not only improve refugees’ access to food and other basic necessities but they also provide them with economic opportunities, enabling them to lead a productive life, benefiting themselves, their families and their host communities. Enhancing skills for the future through self-reliance and capacity-building programmes is vital, considering the ever-increasing pressure on humanitarian funding and the ever-growing gap between needs on the ground and available funding for the response.

At the same time, the humanitarian world seems to be witnessing an ongoing cycle of protracted and emerging crises. Humanitarian needs seem to be increasing at an unprecedented level. Increasing urgencies and priorities tend to compete for international attention, thus pushing some ongoing humanitarian situations out of the limelight. It is extremely vital that the Rohingya crisis does not become one of those sidelined or forgotten crises.

The Rohingya refugees are very vulnerable and their situation remains one of the most pressing anywhere. It is unacceptable that this community, which has suffered so much in Myanmar, continues to live in such difficult circumstances.

The scale of the situation, coupled with the environmental challenges of monsoon rains, put the resources of the refugees, their hosts and the international humanitarian community under extreme pressure

It is therefore imperative that the plight of the Rohingya refugees remains on our radar. The government and people of Bangladesh deserve great recognition for their generous support and protection of the displaced. But there is a limit to what they can offer. The whole international community needs to step up in solidarity with the refugees and their hosts. About 80 per cent of Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar are still entirely dependent on humanitarian support in general and WFP food assistance in particular. Their livelihood options are limited and access to alternative food sources or income-generating possibilities is scarce. They live under a near-constant risk of disaster, with one monsoon and two cyclone seasons each year, which tests their resilience and exacerbates their vulnerabilities.

The scale of the situation, coupled with the environmental challenges of monsoon rains, put the resources of the refugees, their hosts and the international humanitarian community under extreme pressure. The needs are huge but funding is short. For example, it costs WFP alone $16 million every month to feed nearly 900,000 refugees and about $24m a month to continue operations in the camps. It is therefore essential that the international community does not turn its back on the Rohingya situation. Government as well as non-government actors, humanitarian and development organisations, private sector, philanthropists and the general public must remain engaged and step up support.

It is not only financial support which is needed but also smart solutions that build resilience and self-reliance of the refugees and their Bangladeshi hosts. Without such support, the situation in the camps could deteriorate rapidly. What WFP, in collaboration with its partners, works hard to provide to refugees in the camps is neither privilege nor luxury. It is basic human rights. I am not only referring to food but to the lack of income-generating alternatives, which could have serious implications on their health, education, employment and overall security.

When unable to access basic services, refugees tend to resort to negative coping mechanisms such as reselling their food rations and non-food items to pay for other vital services for themselves and their families. This could have a detrimental impact on their household’s nutrition, food security and wellbeing. When the situation becomes dire, coping mechanisms tend to include pulling children out of school, overlooking health and medical care and children being pushed into work or early marriage. In the long run, this results in a vicious cycle of intergenerational problems, including lack of education, unemployment, lost opportunities, lack of social integration and perpetuated economic inequalities and discrimination.

On his visit to Cox’s Bazar in July last year, United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres stated that “nothing could have prepared [him] for the scale of the crisis and extent of suffering”. So, pending adequate political will for a lasting and permanent solution to the Rohingya crisis, there is an immediate need for innovative and sustainable solutions that provide the Rohingya refugee community with lasting opportunities for self-reliance and dignified income generation.

In the immediate short term, every effort should be made to sustain food security as it is key to maintaining other humanitarian gains achieved in the camps. The international community's continued attention, robust support and serious engagement are required to address the pressing needs of Rohingya refugees and their Bangladeshi hosts and to broker a permanent and sustainable solution to the crisis.

Mageed Yahia is director of the World Food Programme in the UAE and representative to the GCC region

Updated: August 26, 2019 08:47 PM

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