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Aid dwindles for Rohingya refugees as money goes to Ukraine, other crises

Police guard the Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on Feb. 12, 2023. [Turjoy Chowdhury for The Washington Post]

DHAKA, Bangladesh — The world’s largest refugee encampment, home at the moment to roughly 1 million Rohingya, is set to receive less than half the funding required to support it this year amid a drastic drop in donations, according to United Nations and Bangladeshi officials. International donors, including the United States, have redirected their money to Ukraine and other crises.

The exact shortfall has yet to be determined but has already led to reductions in food rations for the Rohingya refugees gathered on the southeastern coast of Bangladesh, most of whom fled a violent campaign of ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar military in 2017.

The Rohingya, who are mostly Muslim, are dependent on aid because of Bangladeshi policies that bar them from seeking formal employment. Without hundreds of millions more in donations, the United Nations warns, more supplies will be cut later this year with dire consequences, especially for children, who make up 55 percent of the refugees.

“Again and again,” said Tom Andrews, the United Nations’ special rapporteur for Myanmar, “we are failing these people.”

The reductions come amid increasing problems in the camp, from a rise in chronic diseases to a surge in militant violence. It also raises questions about the future of the Rohingya in Bangladesh, an impoverished nation with its own challenges.

Funding has been on a downward trend since 2019, but only began reaching critical levels last year, U.N. leaders say. Of the $881 million sought by aid agencies and the Bangladeshi government from international donors, only 62 percent was fulfilled, according to the United Nations. “The prospects this year are even worse,” said Johannes van der Klaauw, Bangladesh country director for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The United States and its allies have traditionally been the biggest donors of humanitarian aid. Crises that are farther away from their geopolitical and security interests tend, over time, to receive less money, said Tazreena Sajjad, a professor of refugees and migration studies at American University in Washington. Funding for Yemen, South Sudan, and the Sahel region of Africa has also dropped precipitously in recent years, Sajjad noted, especially in the wake of the Ukraine war.

Isobel Coleman, deputy administrator for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) said that while the United States remains committed to the Rohingya, “the reality is that due to Putin’s unprovoked war, food and other prices have increased around the world, raising the cost of assistance and allowing us to reach fewer people than we have in the past.”

The Biden administration, which declared in 2022 that it considered Myanmar’s campaign against the Rohingya a genocide, contributed 60 percent of the aid for the Rohingya in 2022, according to the United Nations. The American contribution for 2023 has yet to be finalized but will fall from previous years, said a senior U.S. government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details on private discussions.

There are also other challenges, the official added, including Bangladesh’s refusal to accept any kind of developmental aid that spans multiple years, or to allow the Rohingya to become more self-reliant by working. “If we could work,” said Saiful Islam Peter, a 24-year-old Rohingya refugee, “We could solve our own problems.”

But Shahriar Alam, Bangladesh’s state minister for foreign affairs, said the country cannot be expected to accept that the Rohingya crisis has become protracted — at least not officially.

With 169 million people squeezed into an area the size of Wisconsin, Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. It’s extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and has only begun to make strides in reducing poverty — an effort that could be undercut by the $1.2 billion spent yearly on the Rohingya response, officials say.

Having passed the five-year mark, the Rohingya crisis is no longer considered an emergency by many countries. Western countries can provide developmental aid but only if Bangladesh accepts it — a point that State Department counselor Derek Chollet emphasized during his recent trip to Dhaka, the U.S. official said.

Just a few weeks before Ramadan, which starts later this month, the World Food Program reduced rations for the Rohingya for the first time from $12 per person per month to $10. The agency alerted donors to the potential cuts in December with the hope of receiving more money, staff said. But it didn’t work. If WFP doesn’t receive new infusions, it might be forced by the end of the year to lower rations to $6 — or about $0.20 a day, said Bangladesh country director Dom Scalpelli.

Medical providers are bracing for the impact of reduced aid. Malnutrition is already widespread. Health workers have been struggling for more than year to contain a scabies outbreak and manage a tenfold increase in dengue fever. “We were barely meeting needs as is,” said Joshua Eckley, deputy country representative for Doctors Without Borders.

A massive fire ripped through Rohingya refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh on March 5, displacing about 12,000 people, authorities said. [Video: Reuters]

On Sunday, a fire ripped through the camp, destroying thousands of shelters and displacing more than 12,000. Rebuilding those shelters will chip away at the limited funds for other needs, said Regina de la Portilla, a spokeswoman for UNHCR. The agency is already evaluating how to cut back on nonfood items like soap and blankets, she added.

Mohammad Jubair, 30, was born in the camp to Rohingya parents who were part of an earlier wave of refugees. Even before this month, he said, he was having only one or two meals a day and trading his remaining rations for items like medicine and clothes. With the ration cuts, he’s most worried for his wife, he said. She’s seven months pregnant.

“I have totally lost my life here. I just want my child to have a chance,” Jubair said. “At what point,” he continued, “does it make sense to take the risk and get on a boat?”

As refugees lined up earlier this month to collect their monthly supplies of rice and dal, which were even smaller than before, Jubair was at his shelter with his wife. She had been feeling abdominal pain, he said, and he didn’t know if it was from hunger or illness. He gave her a bottle of hot water. He couldn’t afford anything else, he said.

Faruque reported from Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Azad Majumder in Dhaka contributed to this report.


(c) 2023, The Washington Post

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