A Rohingya girl grieves outside of a UNHCR tent in Bangladesh in a file photo. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun Photo
A Rohingya girl grieves outside of a UNHCR tent in Bangladesh in a file photo. Photo: AFP

On February 15, the United Nations (UN) released its Joint Response Plan 2019 (JRP) in Geneva, asking donors for an additional US$920.5 million to support around 900,000 Rohingya refugees stuck in squalid camps in Bangladesh.

JRP 2019 is a planning document reflecting a total wish list for funds that will be used by UN agencies and more than 100 other foreign and national non-governmental organizations.Funds requested also include various forms of support for 336,000 Bangladeshis living in “host communities” near the camps.

The document itself is a 94-page opus maximus that is heavy reading for the acronym-challenged faint of heart.

It outlines in exhaustive detail the needs and justifications for programs across multiple “sectors”, including for protection, food security, health, emergency communications and logistics, to name a few.

The UN won’t likely receive that entire sum: The 2018 JRP requested $950.8 million, 69% of which was eventually provided by bilateral and private donors.

The Rohingya refugee crisis made global headlines in 2017 when 745,000 people, including an estimated 400,000 children, fled violence in Myanmar.

A Rohingya refugee man stands at Kutupalong camp in Ukhia near Cox’s Bazar, August 13, 2018. Photo: AFP/Chandan Khanna

As many as 10,000 Muslim Rohingya are estimated to have been killed by the military and Buddhist civilians during the Myanmar military’s “clearance operations” launched in response to insurgent attacks on police border outposts.

Myanmar’s military carried out a “widespread and systematic attack on [civilians]” that included “murder, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, rape, sexual slavery, and other forms of sexual violence, persecution and enslavement” that constituted “genocidal intent”, a UN Fact-Finding Mission report released in Geneva last August found.

The UN defines genocide as acts meant to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group in whole or in part. UN investigators recommended that Myanmar’s commander-in-chief and five generals should be prosecuted for orchestrating the gravest crimes under law.

Since 2017 and the massive humanitarian response to support the refugees, the situation has moved from crisis to something a bit less. “We’ve come a long way since then,” said Jon Hoisaeter, Senior Coordinator for the Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) on February 15.

The ISCG is a UN entity set up to manage the multi-institutional, multi-million dollar refugee relief effort, which works in tandem with the Bangladeshi government. “The emergency is not over, but the situation has stabilized,” he added.

One issue donors face, however, is an increasing impatience on the part of Bangladeshis, who initially welcomed the Rohingya and likely saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

Rohingya refugees receive aid distributed by local organizations at Balukhali makeshift refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, September 14, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

But with each passing day there are more Bangladeshis wondering if the refugees will ever go home and what that means for one of the world’s poorest nations, a country that itself faces enormous problems of poverty, pollution, unemployment, corruption, and a general lack of resources to tackle any of these issues.

There is also the perception in some circles that Bangladeshis are getting left out of the relief effort while foreign aid workers are living high on the hog.

“Watchdog accuses INGOs of living the good life on Rohingya aid money” ran the headline on one story in the Dhaka Tribune on February 12. The article reported on a press conference held by the Cox’s Bazar CSO-NGO Forum (CCNF), a consortium of local groups that aims to uphold localization and accountability in the handling of the refugee crisis.

At the event, CCNF’s Co-Chairman Abu Morshed Chowdhury Khola read from a statement: “There are 123 local and international NGOs working in the Rohingya camps…They raise funds claiming to rehabilitate and assist the Rohingya, but spend money on luxury SUVs, five-star hotel rooms, and other amenities.”

He called for more control of the relief effort by Bangladeshis and for foreign donors to employ at least 70% of staff from local communities near the camps.

UN figures indicate that 97% of their personnel on the ground–12,000 in total—are Bangladeshis, while only 330 are foreign expatriates. The problem is that people living near the camps have a generally low education and many are illiterate, some here claim.

“With regard to localization, we need to agree on a road map on how to make progress,” said ISCG’s Hoisaeter. The whole issue of dealing with “host communities” is a constant concern for donors.

Rohingya refugees walk after crossing the Naf river from Myanmar into Bangladesh in Whaikhyang. Photo: AFP/Fred Dufour

“It’s critical because it’s like having a city the size of Seattle land in your back yard,” said Richard Ragan, World Food Programme’s (WFP) Representative in Bangladesh.

WFP, for its part, plans to source an increasing amount of rice and other food products given to refugees from local markets. “Over the next six months our goal is to shift everything to a [local] commercial transaction. So you could see millions more dollars moving around the local economy,” Ragan said.

Over the longer term the lingering elephant in the room is whether the Rohingya will ever go back to Myanmar. One current plan on the table is the idea to establish “safe havens” in Myanmar for the Rohingya that would be monitored by China, India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Bangladeshi Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen publicly endorsed the idea on February 9.

Critics have called the plan basically a system of “concentration camps” where there would be no freedom of movement for the Rohingya. Nor would it deal with the nagging issue of giving the Rohingya full citizenship rights, a request Myanmar authorities have persistently refused.

For Rohingya refugee Roshid Ahmad, a 58-year-old father of five who lives in Kutupalong camp – now the largest refugee camp in the world– the issue is simple. “Without justice, I will never go home.”

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