The UN refugee agency’s annual report on global forced-displacement trends, released on Wednesday, which was World Refugee Day, focused on the additional 650,000 “marginalized and stateless” Muslim Rohingya expelled from Myanmar into Bangladesh from mid-2017, bringing the year-end total to almost 950,000 housed in the world’s largest refugee camp in rural Cox’s Bazar.
They face “increased protection risks” during the May-September monsoon season from natural disaster and disease, aggravated by overcrowding and aid-delivery coordination difficulties listed in a separate analysis by Washington-based advocacy group Refugees International. The Bangladeshi government has floated a proposal to relocate part of the population to Bhahshan Char Island off the Bay of Bengal coast, also a vulnerable climate zone.
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) points out that more than half of the latest Rohingya refugee wave, which followed previous ones in 2016 and in the 1990s and 1970s, are children under the age of 17, and that women and girls often experience sexual violence.
Back in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, an estimated 125,000 have been internally displaced persons (IDPs) in camp detention for the past five years, while fewer than 500,000 remain in the northern part under “entrenched discrimination and denied human rights.”
Myanmar ranks as the No 4 home country for refugees globally, with only Afghanistan, at No 2 with double the exodus at 2.5 million, exceeding it in Asia. Almost 1.5 million Afghans have fled to neighboring Pakistan over decades of civil war, and Iran hosts just under 1 million.
In Southeast Asia, advanced emerging markets Malaysia and Thailand have also received large Rohingya contingents fleeing by boat, and a new study co-authored by the US-based Center for Global Development (CGD) and Tent Partnership for Refugees finds them mostly in urban areas with ready employment and supply-chain access to local and multinational business.
2017: new record of 68.5 million displaced
In 2017 the world’s displaced total reached another high of 68.5 million, with 20 million UNHCR-designated and 5.5 million Palestinian refugees over several generations. Developing nations are host to 85%, with Turkey at the top of the list with half of Syria’s 6.5 million uprooted, and Uganda a leading destination for multiple African crises.
The Rohingya exit was “particularly rapid,” as hundreds of thousands arrived over three months. The Asia-Pacific refugee population is 4.2 million, and it is already under a “protracted situation” where at least 25,000 are in place in an asylum country for a minimum five years, and the life-saving emergency has passed without a long-term solution.
Return and resettlement are options, but came to less than 1 million for both categories, leaving local integration as a main emphasis, promoted by best practices to be finalized in a new UN Global Refugee Compact this year. They include full citizenship, education and employment opportunities, even as Asian hosts currently impose curbs on political and poverty grounds.
The UNHCR trends report noted that the region had IDP return successes in Pakistan and the Philippines last year with around 300,000 going home in each country, but warned that their security was still “hazardous.” It added that international protection was especially difficult to obtain in Japan and South Korea, where initial asylum approval rates are less than 10%, while applicants from China still had almost 100,000 claims outstanding worldwide.
Regional anomalies were cited as well, such as Indonesia’s only 25% female and Tajikistan’s entirely male refugee groups, and Afghanistan’s nearly three-quarters versus Nepal’s 10% children’s share.
The CGD-Tent survey confirmed across a sample of two dozen host states that 60% were in urban locations, and half were of working age. Of the latter, one-quarter are in the biggest cities where multinational companies typically operate and can offer thousands of local jobs and supplier relationships.
Malaysia has more than 50,000 urban refugees, while Thailand is at the opposite end with fewer than 7,000 under the research classifications, although both have more than 2,000 registered foreign direct investors.
In Bangladesh, Chittagong, a city of 4 million, is relatively close to Cox’s Bazar and the giant Kutupalong-Balukhali camp. However, proximity is just a “first step,” since labor, skills and legal restrictions are common, which keep refugees in the low-paying informal economy at best.
The paper urges the business community to demonstrate with pilot projects and “policy voice” potential bottom-line and host-community returns, with East and South Asia immediate test cases for more compassionate and commercially minded treatment of the Rohingya.