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Reinforcing our commitment to Rohingya refugees

Over 700,000 Rohingya fled systemic oppression in Myanmar and crossed over to Bangladesh in 2017. FILE PHOTO: AFP

It has been more than six years since the forced mass displacement of over 700,000 Rohingya from Myanmar's Rakhine state took place in August 2017. They fled state oppression and were forced to leave their homes and embrace an uncertain future. Bangladesh found itself having to deal with one of the most rapid, large-scale human displacements ever faced by a single country. The people and Government of Bangladesh rose to this extraordinary challenge with compassion and courage, and the United Nations along with the wider international community collaborated to assist the country in responding to this crisis.

However, as a large part of the Rohingya population, in Bangladesh, enters its seventh year residing in refugee camps, international attention has been diverted by other global crises and disasters. This has resulted in a funding crisis to support those displaced around the world. There is a pressing need for the world to reinvigorate its commitment to the Rohingya and to help find a sustainable long-term solution for more than one million refugees who now live in Cox's Bazar and Bhasan Char.

The drawdown in funding is creating a dilemma for both the international community and the people of Bangladesh, while causing deep cuts to the lives and hopes of the Rohingya refugees. Humanitarian conditions in the world's largest single refugee camp could further deteriorate significantly as funding declines. Food ration cuts, for example, threaten to increase rates of malnutrition. Shortages in clean water and proper sanitation, and the lack of access to decent livelihoods risk throwing basic living conditions out the window. All this, in an already fragile ecozone prone to natural disasters, is contributing to a crisis of human development and human security in the camps.

Criminal groups who menace camp communities could increase their efforts to recruit youths. Amid despair and uncertainty about the future, incidents of communal, sexual and gender-based violence have shown a dramatic uptick. This is, sadly, an unsurprising consequence. On the housing front, heavy and more frequent rains linked to climate change batter bamboo and tarpaulin shelters that house a majority of the Rohingya, barely sheltering them from the harsh elements. Recurring maintenance and rebuilding costs cannot be borne by this community. But perhaps the greatest cost is the loss of hope for a better future among many Rohingya, especially women and girls.

Next week, when we visit the camps in Cox's Bazar and Bhasan Char, we will meet with Rohingya communities, the government and partners to explore new initiatives and support. The safe, voluntary, dignified, and sustainable repatriation of the Rohingya to their homes in Myanmar remains the primary solution to the crisis. We need to recognise, however, that the situation in Rakhine is currently not conducive to large-scale return. So, in the interim, while preparing the ground for that repatriation, we must collectively consider what more can be done.

Rohingya youth have not had access to senior secondary and tertiary education since 2012, so there is a large population of unemployed, unskilled, and under-educated Rohingya in need of education and skills development. This includes continuing to expand Myanmar's curriculum education for children in the camps, and to support livelihood opportunities that emanate from the knowledge and skills developed. Ensuring that despairing youth have positive choices in their grasp and are not lured into extremism or criminality serves these young people, their families, and the communities around them. It is a high-return investment in a larger public good.

Another key initiative to improve the immediate living conditions of the Rohingya refugees is to scale the prototype temporary shelters built by UNDP and other partners, using resilient eco-friendly materials that are more durable than bamboo. We hope that this and other similar initiatives will make these shelters more resistant to extreme weather events and minimise rebuilding costs.

In October 2020, at the Conference on Sustaining Support for the Rohingya Refugee Response, I called for "longer term commitments and investments between and by the (concerned) parties, and the strong support of the international community." These words remain as true today as they were three years ago. The international community must not forget the plight of the Rohingya, both inside Myanmar and outside. While the journey ahead is challenging, as part of the UN system, UNDP's commitment to durable solutions together with our partners remains undeterred.


(c) 2023, The Daily Star


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