With a documented total of almost 1.2 million refugees originating from Myanmar – overwhelmingly Rohingya – this constitutes the world’s fourth largest refugee group by country of origin in 2018. Rohingya also form the world’s largest stateless population. The distinctive settlement policies for Rohingya across the region, varying from encampment to relatively unconstrained urban settlement, necessitate varied programming responses in each country.
Including Australia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, this report maps the policy making environment and institutional architecture of Asian civil society organisations (CSOs) and communities engaged in issues of Rohingya statelessness and in supporting Rohingya refugees. The report documents and assesses the interests and capacities of these CSOs, and provides conclusions and recommendations to support development of stronger and more representative ADSP policy engagement and regional advocacy strategy.
The methodology comprised a desk study review of literature, secondary data and websites for each country, and 23 key informant interviews (KIIs) with region- and country- based CSOs and other actors.
At both national and regional levels, Rohingya refugees experience wide-ranging protection and rights deficits, very significant insecurity, extensive restrictions and obstacles to socio-economic wellbeing, livelihood precarity and destitution, and vulnerability to smuggling and trafficking. The lack of durable solutions within the region exacerbates these deficits.
Underscoring their protection and rights deficits and vulnerability are: the non-signatory status of four of the host countries to the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees; Rohingya statelessness; their lack of documentation; and the host countries’ strong commitment to early repatriation. Significant limitations to a range of functional rights – notably freedom of movement, right to work and livelihoods – and limited access to social welfare and assistance, severely weaken the refugees’ socio-economic well-being.These rights and protection deficits bear heavily on the mandates, roles, capacities, and strategies of CSOs.
Despite these inauspicious conditions, a vibrant CSO community exists in the sub-region, forming a large, diverse and very active constituency engaged with Rohingya refugees. This is predominantly, but not exclusively, led by host country civil society not Rohingya. The CSOs vary from very small scale informal Rohingya grass roots community groups involved in the Bangladesh refugee camps for example, to well organised and established host country CSOs/NGOs. Although generally small scale, host-country CSOs have strong advocacy capacity, and they are effectively networked.
Advocacy for their rights and protection is the dominant focus of the CSOs, whilst, on the other hand, they have limited capacity and resources for delivering much needed physical and technical services and humanitarian assistance. However, the intensely politicised context governing the response to Rohingya in the host countries constitutes a major challenge for CSOs (and, indeed all NGOs and INGOs) working with Rohingya refugees. This has important implications for how, and the extent to which, ADSP members and non-governmental organisations could develop a stronger and more representative policy engagement and regional advocacy strategy.
The host countries’ focus on repatriation overwhelmingly drives and shapes CSO priorities, those of other humanitarian actors and, potentially, ADSP. This means that humanitarian actors must be attentive to the complexity of political factors when defining their advocacy positions and methods, carefully navigating the impact of host governments’ priorities on their precepts.
Whilst humanitarian actors, such as ADSP, must navigate their host governments’ commitment to repatriation, at lower levels of government (closer to the Rohingya populations themselves), other factors define potential advocacy priorities and methods – and potentially also greater acceptance and allies. Amongst these factors the localisation of CSOs and the establishment of CSO platforms, which place a high premium on collaborative working, are significant. However, unresolved tensions remain between local and national CSOs on the one hand, and NGOs and INGOs, on the other, with the sense that considerable ‘localised’ expertise and capacity has not been fully recognised or exploited when the latter scaled up after the 2017 crisis. Conversely, these developments and increasing engagement by local CSOs do not seem to include the embryonic Rohingya-led CSOs. Nevertheless, the increasing possibilities for the formalised acceptance of refugees, which are in some ways shaped by the advocacy of the CSOs and public attitudes toward the refugees in each country, reinforce the potential for engagement.
Rohingya civil society remains organisationally very weak in all the countries but is gradually emerging. Only very limited and patchy collaboration exists between Rohingya CSOs and local CSOs and also NGOs/INGOs.The report highlights these characteristics in short summaries of case study countries.
The report makes 14 generic and country-based recommendations enabling ADSP members and other non-governmental organisations to develop stronger and more representative policy engagement and regional advocacy strategy related to Rohingya refugees and CSOs. These recommendations include: scaling up its presence in advocacy and service delivery across the region; collaborating with developing sustainable partnership and support for local CSO actors and existing country ‘platforms’; developing an ADSP ‘dual mandate’ in host countries and in Myanmar; strengthening adherence to international protection norms; enhancing advocacy; supporting and empowering Rohingya CSOs and facilitating bottom-up Rohingya community development; expanding service delivery in areas such as education and women and children, and shelter and infrastructure; undertaking research on Rohingya cultural norms, and governance.
Part 1 of the report can be found here.
Part 2 of the report can be found here.