Bangladesh – Rohingya
Moving Beyond the Emergency: A Whole of Society Approach to the Refugee Response in Bangladesh
Center for Global Development
October 3, 2019
Lauren Post , Rachel Landry and Cindy Huang
Bangladesh provides a significant global public good by hosting over one million Rohingya refugees. Most are living in camps in Cox’s Bazar district, where resources and livelihoods are strained. The refugee situation is likely to be protracted, and medium-term planning is critical. CGD has been working with local and international partners to understand what that medium-term response could look like. This is one of five publications where we outline steps for developing a medium-term plan for Bangladesh, to benefit refugees and their host community alike. The other four cover forest and landscape restoration, trade, private sector investment, and labor mobility.
In August 2017, more than 740,000 stateless Rohingya started to flee systematic violence and persecution perpetrated by Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, and other security forces in Rakhine State. The government of Bangladesh generously opened its borders to these forcibly displaced Rohingya and is now hosting over one million refugees, the vast majority of whom are confined to camps in one of the country’s poorest districts, Cox’s Bazar. Two years on from what quickly became the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis, all signs point to an acute need to change the approach to the Rohingya refugee response.
The current response is based on an understandable, but ultimately insufficient, short-term view that focuses on delivering basic and lifesaving humanitarian assistance. But the needs of the Rohingya refugees and local hosting community are far more complex. The government of Bangladesh rightly wants Myanmar to be held accountable for resolving the root cause of the crisis, but the reality is safe and voluntary returns of the Rohingya to Myanmar are unlikely in the near term. There have been several attempts at repatriation since the start of the crisis, most recently in August 2019; but none has been successful as refugees refuse to return until their citizenship, safety, freedom of movement, and access to services and livelihoods in Rakhine are guaranteed. For the sake of both Rohingya and Bangladeshi residents of Cox’s Bazar, the government of Bangladesh must prepare for the fact that this refugee crisis is on track to becoming protracted. Even if Myanmar successfully addressed the underlying causes of inequality and marginalization across Rakhine State, and refugee returns became a reality, credible estimates show that in a realistic scenario for repatriation, significant numbers of Rohingyas will remain in Bangladesh for more than 10 years.
The inadequacy of the current response has implications for the refugees, host communities, and Bangladesh’s development trajectory. The well-being of refugees and host communities is at risk and social cohesion is deteriorating. Nearly 44 percent of Rohingya refugees and 40 percent of the host community have poor or borderline food consumption, meaning they are unable to get enough to eat and are not getting the right nutrition—which could lead to malnutrition and other health issues. Poverty levels among refugees and host communities are high: 75 percent of refugees live below the minimum expenditure basket. Approximately 33 percent of the local population in Cox’s Bazar lives below the national poverty line, compared with the national average of 25 percent. Negative coping strategies, including child labor, early marriage, and drug trafficking, are frequently reported in the camps. And while only 11 percent of Rohingya indicated in a recent survey that there are inter-community tensions, 48 percent of locals said tensions exist. services. It is difficult to imagine how Bangladesh, and Cox’s Bazar in particular, will achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and its commitment to Leave No One Behind given this trajectory.
Unlike five to ten years ago, when a short-term response to refugee crises was the accepted norm, the international community now acknowledges the importance of development approaches in refugee settings. The Grand Bargain, Global Compact on Refugees, and World Bank have catalyzed a set of tools for humanitarian and development actors to better support both refugees and hosts in protracted situations. However, the government of Bangladesh’s policy environment is a barrier to fully realizing these approaches and the positive impact they can have. Since the start of the crisis, the government has restricted NGO access in the camps, and put in place measures that prohibit refugees from accessing the labor market and getting a formal, accredited education in schools. Some progress has been made, including allowing refugees to partake in cash-for-work and paid volunteer opportunities in the camps and approving two out of four levels of an informal learning framework for Rohingya children. However, this progress is a far cry from meeting needs and enabling self-reliance.
Inadequate financing to support the government of Bangladesh and implementing agencies is only contributing to the challenges. The 2019 Joint Response Plan (JRP) was funded at just 34 percent as of July 2019. The 2018 JRP was only 69 percent funded, leaving a shortfall of nearly US$300 million. In addition, humanitarian funding that is available is being disbursed in short-term grants—which is inefficient and unsustainable especially as donor fatigue sets in. While development financing from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank will help meet the needs of refugees and host communities, the banks have not successfully shifted the response to a multiyear plan to align with the multiyear financing they are bringing to the crisis. The World Bank has so far not been able to leverage its financing to encourage the government of Bangladesh to make necessary reforms to its refugee policies to support self-reliance as it has done in other contexts, such as Jordan and Ethiopia. Consequently, bank financing is being used as gap-filling for humanitarian aid rather than as catalytic development financing.
Global experience has demonstrated that developing a plan to address medium-term needs for refugees and for hosts—or a whole of society approach—is critical and that this plan should be put in place within the first few years of a crisis. Some of the benefits of a whole of society, medium-term plan that enables self-reliance have been demonstrated in countries such as Uganda, Jordan, and Colombia, where refugees have legal pathways to formal education and decent work. At the same time, the risks of failing to devise and implement such a plan have been made clear through protracted refugee situations such as in Thailand, where refugees do not have livelihoods opportunities, leading to high levels of economic stress and negative coping strategies such as early marriage, alarming levels of suicide, and violence—impacting the well-being of both refugees and host communities alike.
The inevitable protracted nature of this refugee crisis, combined with the increasingly pressing challenges faced by Rohingya and their hosts, demands a change in course. Donors and implementing partners are starting to think about what a medium-term approach could look like. National and international actors should prioritize three pillars of actions:
 The government of Bangladesh, with development and humanitarian actors, should develop a three-to-five-year Whole of Society Medium-Term Response Plan that addresses the well-being of, and enables self-reliance among, Rohingya refugees and the Bangladeshi host community in Cox’s Bazar. The plan must define a set of shared outcomes to be achieved, outline complementary actions, and identify incremental steps to expand refugees’ protections and access to services and the labor market.
 The government of Bangladesh, with development and humanitarian actors, should create a Coordination Platform that is responsible for designing the plan, coordinating its implementation, and monitoring progress towards agreed outcomes.
 The international community—particularly donors, UN agencies and the private sector—should provide adequate and appropriate support for the implementation of the plan, including multiyear financing, economic incentives for private investment, and other “beyond aid” measures to support economic growth.