Developing Transitional Solutions for Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh
For around 1 million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar living in Bangladesh, sustainable solutions such as safe and voluntary return to their homeland, large-scale resettlement in third countries, or local integration in Bangladesh will remain elusive for the foreseeable future. It is essential that national policymakers, international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and donors promptly work to strengthen the resilience of displaced Rohingya and host communities through investments in education and livelihoods – and in doing so, lay the foundation for long-term solutions to displacement.
Rohingya refugees have been forced to flee from Myanmar to neighboring countries for decades. The last mass exodus in August 2017 sent over 700,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh to join the roughly 300,000 already seeking refuge there. While the government of Bangladesh and host communities were initially sympathetic to the plight of Rohingya refugees, this goodwill has since waned as the refugee population has grown, outnumbering the host population. Many in the host community feel that the lives of local Bangladeshis have been adversely affected by increased living expenses, reduced wages and employment opportunities, environmental degradation, and increased pressure on public resources and services.
Similarly, many in the Rohingya refugee community also harbor frustrations and dissatisfaction, especially about their living situation in temporary shelters in congested camps. Bangladesh is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention nor its 1967 Protocol, and only officially recognizes Rohingya who arrived before 1992 as refugees. Rohingya who arrived after 1992 are instead termed as Forcibly Displaced Myanmar Nationals. While all Rohingya have access to shelter and humanitarian assistance in Bangladesh, they still cannot access formal education or sustainable housing, and have no right to work. Other challenges also exist in relation to inadequate healthcare facilities, protection, and security.
Limited Existing Access to Services
While there is no formal right to work, there have been some sporadic efforts to provide livelihood opportunities for Rohingya refugees in the camps as well as host communities. These have generally been delivered through short-term projects working on self-reliance, for example, producing agricultural products or jute bags. However, without formal employment rights, refugees still rely almost entirely on humanitarian aid and informal small-scale economic activities inside and outside camps. There is limited opportunity for them to build and work toward long-term self-reliance.
Rohingya children, who constitute almost half of the refugee population, live without access to public schools or other formal education opportunities in Bangladesh. Notably, in November 2021, UNICEF in partnership with the government of Bangladesh launched the Myanmar curriculum pilot. This positive step has seen 10,000 Rohingya children receive standardized education that follows the Myanmar national curriculum – a move that will help them if and when they can return to their homeland. However, it is unclear if the Myanmar government will accredit this education for children taught under this curriculum.
Against the challenging backdrop in the camps, many Rohingya have opted to take the desperate step of seeking irregular and often dangerous means of leaving Bangladesh in search of stability and opportunity. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 39 boats carrying over 3,500 Rohingya refugees – most embarking from Bangladesh and Myanmar – attempted sea crossings in 2022, resulting in nearly 400 deaths at sea. This is a sharp increase compared to the approximately 700 Rohingya who attempted crossings in 2021.
In addition to the difficult conditions for Rohingya in Bangladesh, because of the adverse conditions persisting inside Myanmar, the safe, dignified, and voluntary return of Rohingya to Myanmar is yet unlikely for the majority of Rohingya refugees in the short or medium term. The government of Bangladesh has made several attempts to facilitate repatriation of refugees arriving since 2017, but none has succeeded – not least because Rohingya refugees have concluded that conditions of safety and security are not present. The military coup in Myanmar in February 2021 has only worsened the situation.
Although a Myanmar delegation came to Bangladesh in March and restarted the verification process for returning Rohingya to Myanmar, there is no significant change in the political circumstances in Myanmar. Likewise, there is no reason to hope that any repatriation at this point will be safe and voluntary. A 20-member team of Rohingya who visited Rakhine State this month reported that they would not return without citizenship and security guarantees.
Limited Resettlement Opportunities
In 2022, the U.S. government announced a resettlement program for Rohingya in the camps. Though not specified in the announcement, the expectation is that several thousand Rohingya could resettle to the United States from Bangladesh this year. While the program is a significant and welcome initiative, it remains insufficient in its current form. In the spirit of solidarity and responsibility sharing, resettlement countries should advance commitments to resettle larger numbers of Rohingya from Bangladesh.
However, it is equally important to acknowledge that the resettlement of all 1 million Rohingya – or even most of them – from Bangladesh is unrealistic. Instead, expanded resettlement should be but one element of a more comprehensive plan among humanitarian actors and the government of Bangladesh around education, livelihoods, and skills development to provide a transitional solution for Rohingya. Approaches that combine humanitarian and development programming have not been adequately put into action by authorities, who remain wary of creating conditions they feel will encourage more Rohingya to come to Bangladesh.
How to Move Forward
A combined humanitarian-development approach is needed to design and deliver programs that meet immediate needs, reduce risks and vulnerabilities, and build resilience for both refugees and host communities. For example, a five-year plan could serve to meaningfully increase connections between humanitarian and development activities and secure reliable and adequate resourcing. Such a plan could improve human capital development, including formal education, skills development, and livelihood opportunities, and help Rohingya prepare better for their life in Myanmar when the conditions are suitable for returns.
To promote livelihood opportunities for refugees and host communities, for example, the government of Bangladesh could issue special identification documents and work permits allowing refugees to work in specific areas, such as special economic zones or shipyards. Special arrangements could likewise be made with private sector entities to employ refugees in selected areas and sectors. Promoting livelihood opportunities for refugees will help authorities to cut down illegal economic activities and related crimes affecting the camps and surrounding areas. Development partners can provide support to the government and private sector to build the capacity of Rohingya and host community workers by providing technical skills-based training opportunities.
A collective emphasis on and move toward medium-term or transitional solutions would serve both refugee and host communities by reducing social tension between the two communities and building resilience. To turn the refugee community from a burden to an asset for Bangladesh, and to better prepare Rohingya for eventual return or resettlement, a medium-term plan also needs to ensure access to certified accelerated and formal education opportunities for refugee children, leading to recognized qualifications that will help them secure future employment. A plan could also expand educational opportunities for host communities.
To deal with the protracted Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, it is essential to move toward transitional solutions for the refugees. The government of Bangladesh must be realistic; hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are likely to remain in Bangladesh for years or longer. Allowing refugees opportunities to develop skills and support themselves will empower them and disincentivize irregular and dangerous boat movements, human trafficking, and drug smuggling. And it need not come at the expense of the vulnerable host communities. Humanitarian and development programming and financing under a multi-year plan can and must also serve the aspirations and interests of local Bangladeshis.