Foreign aid for Rohingya refugees has declined since the economic fallout triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, but the world must not turn its back and should aid Bangladesh, which hosts the vast bulk of the refugees, by providing comprehensive financial assistance. The failure of repatriation, together with funding shortages, could risk untoward future developments, the toll of which the international community will not be able to avoid.
As of July 2021, only US$366 million (~$488 million) of the required US$1 billion ($1.3 billion) in humanitarian assistance funding for the Rohingyas had been disbursed. The disbursement has declined to 34 per cent, which used to be within the range between 72 to 75 per cent of the total required funds in the first three years of the Rohingya influx since 2017. This downward trend in foreign donations raises the question, “Has the world forgotten the plight of the Rohingyas?”
This year marks the fourth anniversary of the military-backed inhumane “clearance operation”, followed by a massive exodus of hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas in what the UNHRC called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” While the rest of the world turned a blind eye to the Rohingya refugees, Bangladesh generously extended temporary shelter to them. These stateless people have the right to lead a dignified life and build a stable future in Rakhine like everyone else; that right can only be guaranteed if the world communities express solidarity with them. Stable funding commitments from long-standing donors is a prerequisite for food security, safe water, healthcare and non-food items for 1.1 million Rohingyas. The ultimate sustainable solution, safe and sustainable repatriation, seems a distant reality now, even after signing two repatriation agreements, due to Myanmar’s unwillingness to create conducive conditions. Until repatriation becomes possible, the world must stand by one of the world’s the largest refugee-hosting countries, Bangladesh, to uphold the dignity of the “world’s most persecuted minority” of our time.
As one crisis competes with another for attention, emerging crises usually dissipate the world’s concentration with respect to funds and focus its attention on the most immediate one, thereby worsening the situation of others. The unwillingness of donors to open their wallets as much as the situation demands may further intensify the crisis. The foreign aid for Rohingyas has declined since the economic fallout triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic. Moreover, the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan had created a new humanitarian crisis by displacing millions of Afghans. That crisis has resulted in the significant slashing of foreign donations to the Rohingyas by shifting the spotlight to the ongoing Afghan crisis.
Along with resulting social issues and environmental degradation, Bangladesh also bears a substantial economic burden for supporting the persecuted Rohingyas. The Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), a Bangladeshi thinktank, reported that Bangladesh has to spend around $1.22 billion every year on Rohingya refugees, which amount will rise along with the population growth, inflation rise and a decrease in foreign aid. CPD also estimated that once repatriation starts, it will take 12 years to repatriate all the refugees if 300 are repatriated every day, assuming current population growth remains constant. According to CPD, around US$7 billion ($9.3 billion) would be required to host and support the Rohingya refugees for the first five years without repatriation. It is next to impossible for a country like Bangladesh to afford that level of expenditure as it relies heavily on external debt to meet its budget deficit.
The Rohingya crisis is the result of a long-smouldering conflict, which could catalyse new conflicts. Large funding shortages could lead to the emergence of newer challenges such as extortion, prostitution, human trafficking, drug dealing, radicalisation and intra- and inter-group conflicts, such as the killing of Rohingya leader Mohibullah. Moreover, financial shortages will have a devastating impact on children and women, who require age and gender-sensitive interventions. Ignoring those challenges may boomerang on Bangladesh and the rest of the world by eroding regional stability. As international aid dwindles, Bangladesh faces increased challenges in managing that beleaguered community. The unavailability of funds on time could hamper Bangladesh’s efforts to deliver essential services to these displaced refugees. Many Local NGOs that now provide humanitarian assistance to Rohingya with their own funds will not be able to sustain that effort for much longer without external donations.
The best way to counter those challenges is to ensure regular financial flows, which solution cannot be borne alone by Bangladesh. To plug the funding gap, the Bangladesh Government could initiate a joint fundraising campaign to pool and lift contributions from individuals and institutional donors by convincing them to extend their support for distressed Rohingyas who have scant access to basic needs. Bangladesh should ensure that the Rohingya issue is not sidelined and international focus remains on it. To assure international attention, Bangladesh must keep the initiative alive through diplomatic manoeuvres, pointing out how insufficient funds are intensifying the trauma already inflicted upon Rohingyas. Bangladesh must echo the issue in various regional and global platforms. Moreover, it is equally important to emphasise the effective utilisation of funds, which can be done by slashing the number of foreign employees and involving more local NGOs.
Rohingya communities are in more need of international support than ever before. A well-co-ordinated humanitarian response is needed to alleviate the sufferings of “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals”. The world community must wake up to keep the pledges committed at the beginning of this crisis and should not pass the burden on to Bangladesh to bear alone as the country cannot carry the burden anymore. The “Do No Harm” principle must be followed while delivering lifesaving assistance to Rohingya to avoid inadvertently fuelling any new conflicts.
The shared efforts of the global community are needed to end the plight of persecuted Rohingyas. The world must not turn its back on these vulnerable refugees and should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Bangladesh to fill the staggering funding gap, the lion’s share of which comes from foreign donors. The UN should play the role of torchbearer in bringing the global donors together to address the financial strain highlighting how this may create an acute human rights crisis and worsen the circumstances imaginable. Though safe repatriation is the ultimate solution to the Rohingya crisis, it is equally crucial to redress Bangladesh’s growing challenges in hosting Rohingyas by ensuring comprehensive financial assistance. The failure of repatriation and funding shortages could risk untoward developments, the toll of which the international community will not be able to avoid.