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An agenda for a dignified and sustainable Rohingya refugee response in Bangladesh (May 2021)

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Executive Summary

The Government and people of Bangladesh, with the support of many civil society groups, have generously welcomed hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees fleeing extreme violence and human rights violations in Myanmar. However, local authorities, communities and available support systems are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers and the level of urgent humanitarian needs. There also continues to be a lack of adequate formal legal and normative frameworks for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, and the ad-hoc administrative arrangements that are currently in place, makes the implementation of protection and assistance programmes very challenging.

The scale and magnitude of the crisis, complicates the process of ensuring effective protection, assistance, and solutions for affected persons. This paper examines the extent to which a ‘whole of society approach’ is applied in the Rohingya refugee response in Bangladesh and looks at how the current approach impacts refugee protection outcomes, interfaces with existing coordination mechanisms, intersects with ongoing localisation efforts, and ensures meaningful refugee participation and leadership.

1.1 Rohingya Refugee Response in Bangladesh: Key Gaps and Challenges

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are living in difficult conditions in overcrowded camps in Cox’s Bazar with no freedom of movement outside the camps, and restricted access to rights including education and livelihoods. Their lack of legal status as refugees has given rise to insecurity and exclusion with regard to their access to rights and services. The Government-led disaster management structure is responsible for Rohingya refugees. Hybrid humanitarian coordination structures that are currently in place, are not fully aligned with international humanitarian coordination models, nor are they flexible enough to adapt to ever changing field coordination needs. The host communities of Cox’s Bazar are also affected by the large Rohingya presence in terms of rising prices, decreasing wages, environmental degradation as well as growing pressure on existing public services.

Since August 2019, a series of measures taken by the Government of Bangladesh towards Rohingya refugees has resulted in progressive deterioration of the protection environment in the camps and increased humanitarian access barriers. This has created an environment of fear and uncertainty in the refugee camps, compromising refugees’ ability to live a life of dignity and respect and to meaningfully participate in key decisions involving their community.

Operational and access restrictions in the context of COVID-19 have exacerbated existing protection risks by isolating refugee communities from accessing timely information and assistance, increasing aid dependence, reducing self-reliance and community resilience, and increasing hopelessness and insecurity.

The pursuance of short-term strategies potentially exposes both refugee and host communities to greater insecurity, instability, and unpredictability. Idleness, lack of access to education, health, and livelihoods over an extended period of time; along with growing division among communities and humanitarian stakeholders undermine general effectiveness of the Rohingya refugee response, with consequences that compound over time, putting Bangladesh’s international goodwill and domestic interests at risk.

While the Rohingya refugee response coordination framework has continued to adjust to the evolving political and operational realities in Bangladesh, the humanitarian landscape is complicated by ad-hoc approaches and gaps in inter-agency collaboration and accountability.

The recent military coup in Myanmar has delayed prospects of peace in Rakhine State and will have a significant impact on Rohingya repatriation and rehabilitation in Myanmar. Further, there has been limited progress towards the development of a comprehensive Rohingya refugee response plan and international and regional responsibility sharing arrangements, including the identification of sustainable solutions. While the international community needs to continue pressuring Myanmar to create conducive conditions for safe, dignified and voluntary refugee returns, Rohingya need protection and assistance in Bangladesh, and around the globe, in the meantime. Their lives and futures will remain in limbo until a durable solution is found in Myanmar or elsewhere.

1.2 The Way Forward: Need for Whole-of-society-approach.

Given the context, the ‘multi-stakeholder and partnership approach’ or ‘whole-of-society-approach’ that underpins the recently negotiated Global Compacts could provide a valuable concept in guiding collaborative and complementary approaches to refugee protection in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has formally endorsed the New York Declaration for refugees and migrants, the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) and the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration (GCM), which includes a commitment to the “multi-stakeholder and partnership approach” or the “whole-ofsociety-approach”. To ensure a sustainable and dignified response, however, a nuanced understanding of the contextual sensitivities and local ways of working is required, in order to utilize and benefit from the specific capacities of different stakeholders. Based on that knowledge, wider networks and alliances need to be built to advocate towards achieving shared humanitarian objectives for the improvement of the lives of Rohingya refugees and host communities.

This report aims to analyse and propose a way forward for a dignified and sustainable agenda for the Rohingya response in Bangladesh in accordance with the whole-of-society-approach around three key pillars: Refugee Protection, Humanitarian Coordination and Localisation. A set of recommendations have been put forward around these three core areas of work in the Rohingya refugee response.