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The Rohingya refugee crisis: long after the headlines have faded

Portrait of a child in the Rohingya refugee camp

Homes consist of bamboo and tarped roofs since Bangladesh does not permit more permanent structures, despite the erosion and mudslide risk during monsoon seasons. Photo: Bithun Sarkar/CARE

Homes consist of bamboo and tarped roofs since Bangladesh does not permit more permanent structures, despite the erosion and mudslide risk during monsoon seasons. Photo: Bithun Sarkar/CARE

For decades, the Rohingya, an ethnic and religious minority in Myanmar, have experienced systematic persecution. Almost a million refugees have fled into Bangladesh since the 1980s to seek refuge from extreme violence, numbers compounded by the military aggression in August 2017 that added an estimated 725,000 to the number of displaced people — a crisis now marking its sixth anniversary.

More than 85 percent of the world’s refugees are hosted by countries that have difficulty even meeting their own citizens’ needs, and Bangladesh is no different.

Here, the total estimated Rohingya population in Cox’s Bazar district is well over a million –and growing at an estimated birth rate of 35,000 children per year.

When will the Rohingya return?

Governments have spent an estimated $1.22 billion on the refugee crisis each of the past five years. CARE’s programs in Bangladesh — including onsite support in camp infrastructure, water, sanitation, hygiene, primary health care, and protection-related services — have reached more than 450,000 people to date.

Still, displaced lives need more than just services and programs — what refugees really want is to return home.

“It’s been 6 years in this camp,” says Hasan,* 30, a Rohingya refugee living in Cox’s Bazar.

“At first, everything was difficult and chaotic. Over time, NGOs helped us and things got better. But now, there are fewer NGOs and less food. This makes life hard again.”

What happens when funds dwindle?

As nearly a million Rohingya begin their seventh year displaced in Bangladesh, the crisis is becoming one of the world’s most protracted. The funding level is beginning to diminish, perhaps competing with other, newer crises around the world. This has pushed refugees into new uncertainty.

A group of children smile from a bamboo pile meant for home repairs, overlooking the Palangkhali refugee camp. Photo: Bithun Sarkar/CARE

To ensure refugees continue to get the same level and quality of services that they need, aid agencies, humanitarian organizations, and the larger international community must rethink their strategies. CARE is committed to being a key part of this conversation, as we continue to focus on meeting the basic needs of the refugees and ensuring a safe environment for women in the rapidly deteriorating situation in the camps.

With diminishing funds, CARE is concerned that gender-based violence will increase, since protection is not considered a basic need on the same level as food, water, sanitation, and health. In response, we must strengthen community-based protection, equipping communities with the necessary tools such as engaging men in the discussions on their role, organizing communities to facilitate referral pathways, case management, and community counseling.

Educating adolescent girls is essential for providing skills for a better future while decreasing their vulnerability to violence, harassment, and early marriage.

Limits approaching for both food and water

We also need to rethink water and sanitation management as the population grows. Deep tube wells as a water source are reaching their breaking point. According to studies, these wells are putting great stress upon local groundwater, which may lead to a water shortage if we continue the current course.

Meanwhile, food ration allocations have been slashed from $12 to $8 per person per month. This has made the need to increase the Rohingya community’s participation in income generating activities, skills development, and connecting them with local markets more urgent. This will require advocacy and negotiations with the Government of Bangladesh. These skills will prove useful whenever repatriation back to Myanmar happens.

Portrait of a young boy, his hand held by a man whose face is not visible
A young Rohingya boy with his father in Camp 16 in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. More than half of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are children. Photo: Bithun Sarkar/CARE

More than basic services needed

Recently, CARE and other humanitarian organizations have been increasingly concerned about the security situation within the camps. This isn’t surprising: a million people are in their sixth year of homelessness and only about half of them are legally eligible for any form of employment. Even if basic services are provided, a stateless life that lacks essential dignity can drive ongoing unrest.

By not doing enough, we are leaving a larger problem for our children to deal with.

“It feels safe here, but I still miss my country. Talking with our Shanti Apa [facilitator] at the Shanti Khana [Women & Girls Safe Space] has helped me cope. I dream of returning to our country for my children’s sake. I want them to have a proper education. With the security issues in the camp and frequent gunfights, I’m always worried for my children. I hope things improve.”, says Fatima.*

There is so much for humanitarian aid workers to do.

It’s a sad irony that as we make giant strides toward a more connected world through technological advancements, close to a quarter of the world’s people still languish in hunger, deprivation, persecution, and misery.

Unfortunately, these have been human-created situations, which deserve our attention and our resources even as headlines – and even conversations – fade.

* Names changed

Ram Das is Deputy Country Director – Programs for CARE Bangladesh.