Humanitarian aid workers, human rights researchers, and journalists have all been blocked from accessing Rakhine state by the Burmese authorities, where over half a million Rohingya have been forced to flee since August 25. Last week, a planned United Nations visit to the area was cancelled, amidst what has spiraled into a “humanitarian nightmare.”
Within a country comprising almost 90% Buddhists, the 4% Rohingya Muslim minority face widespread Islamophobia. Their presence in Burma stretches back centuries, yet they are regarded as a vestige of the colonial era, when the British brought non-Buddhists to work in Burma during the country’s merge into British India. In 1982, the Rohingya were stripped of citizenship and systematic discrimination ensued; from arbitrary taxes, forced labor, travel bans, barriers to marriage, and a two-child restriction policy.
In the past five years, tens of thousands of Rohingya have been forced out of the country, and subjected to a military crackdown. Following the most recent outbreak of violence, the group has faced indiscriminate slaughter, displacement and mass rape, while over half of 400 Rohingya villages have been razed to ashes. This new wave of ethnic cleansing by Burma’s military Junta has sparked the biggest exodus of the Muslim minority to date, triggering what has become the world’s fastest developing refugee-emergency.
Bangladesh and barriers to aid delivery
Thailand and Malaysia refuse to take any refugees, while neighboring country Bangladesh has taken the greatest influx. A third of the 1.2 million Rohingya have crossed into the neighboring country in the past month, while tens of thousands remain trapped in Burma—starved of food, clean water, shelter, and medical supplies. In a joint letter, nineteen UK aid charities urged an end to the severe restrictions on aid delivery to the Rakhine state.
In 2012, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said her country was too overpopulated to “bear the burden” of more refugees. At the time, an estimated 32,000 Rohingya were already living in appalling conditions in camps along Cox’s Bazar in the southeast region of Bangladesh. The government had planned to relocate them to an island in the Bay of Bengal earlier this year, but rights groups ruled it uninhabitable.
Last week, Hasina said her country would offer Rohingya refugees shelter until Burma took them back, in a move welcomed by Burma rights organizations. On return from the Bangladesh-Burma border, President of the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK (BROUK), Maung Tun Khin said: “My appreciation goes to Bangladesh premier Sheikh Hasina for visiting the Rohingya camps and allowing Rohingyas into Bangladesh and its people for showing humanity and extending hospitality to the Rohingya people.”
The Bangladeshi government has a responsibility to treat the Rohingya people humanely, but they struggle to do it alone. Donor support from the international community is vital since the situation for the Rohingya has worsened. There has been widespread criticism of the international community for its delayed response—in an interview with UNHCR’s chief Filipo Grande, the UN refugee agency was accused of lacking visible presence on the ground in Bangladesh. Grande responded by explaining they are operating alongside other organizations in Bangladesh, a system which he describes as “laborious” and takes time to implement, but one he claims is beginning to work.
The biggest obstacle to the provision of relief for the Rohingya since the start of the crisis has been lack of accessibility. Aid organizations like the UN set out to respond as quickly as possible but face challenges such as restrictions by the Bangladeshi government and difficult logistics. British-based Burma rights organization Burma Campaign UK also highlighted the need for Bangladesh to cooperate more effectively. Their Director Mark Farmaner said: “While Bangladesh has understandably been praised for allowing refugees in, they have not given official refugee status to them. The government of Bangladesh has traditionally placed severe restrictions on aid to Rohingya in Bangladesh, causing great suffering.”
Initially, despite the urgency, UNHCR was only allowed to operate in two official camps that had been set up by the government of Bangladesh for previous waves of Rohingya refugees. The refugee agency had no authority to deliver emergency supplies to those who needed them most, outside of the camps. These had become quickly oversaturated; forcing half of the new arrivals to reside in spontaneous makeshift settlements and along roadsides, all with scarce access to sustenance and sanitation.
Defending the government’s stance, International Organization for Migration (IOM) spokesperson Chris Lom explained, “clean water and sanitation can only be delivered in a structured environment”. Off the record, aid agencies say they felt frustrated by the lack of co-ordination and the restrictions imposed by the Bangladeshi government on how they could operate.
Progress through partnerships
International NGOs and governments are donating the vast majority of their aid money to support Bangladesh in managing the crisis. The UK has provided £25 million to scale up the emergency assistance, while the US State Department announced America would contribute $32 million, with $28 million directed at Bangladesh and the rest to Burma. They are working alongside international partners including UNHCR, the ICRC, and the IOM, to provide emergency assistance for the displaced.
Subsequent developments have seen the Bangladeshi authorities, UNHCR and their partners scale up the protection and support to the new arrivals at the two camps, which has also now been extended to informal settlements surrounding them. Relief efforts include a massive airlift of humanitarian assistance, bringing some 400 metric tons of aid.
Recognizing the urgent need for more camps, the government of Bangladesh allocated 2,000 acres of land for a new settlement. They have selected the UN’s migration agency, IOM to coordinate the international response, while UNHCR contributes $2 million out of the total $4.2 million budget, to support Bangladesh’s Office of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Coordinator (RRRC) to build the road necessary to deliver assistance.
UN spokesperson Andrej Mahecic told me that “for now, the immediate focus has to remain on fast, efficient and substantial increase of support to those who are so desperately in need.”
This new giant camp is not yet suitable for mass habitation. Vital infrastructure is missing while construction efforts battle torrential rain and mudslides; an unsanitary environment exposing refugees to potential outbreaks of disease. Storage availability in Cox’s Bazar is the top priority identified by partners. To improve the coordination of critical humanitarian logistics services, WFP, together with the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief (MoDMR) is co-chairing the Logistics Sector in Bangladesh.
Humanitarian efforts so far, and what is needed
At present, aid agencies remain overwhelmed. Humanitarian assistance is being rolled out, but more money is urgently needed. So far:
- WFP has distributed rice to around 460,000 refugees and now requires $75 million over the next six months to meet further food assistance needs.
- UNHCR has released a supplementary appeal for $83.7 million dollars to cover basic needs and services, camp management, protection and support for local host communities between September 2017 until the end of February 2018.
- To deal with the high risk of disease in overcrowded camps, 40 WHO staff have been dispatched to Bangladesh to work closely alongside IMO, UNFPA, UNICEF, and other health partners.
- UNICEF has appealed for $76.1 million to provide 900,000 doses of oral cholera vaccination and water and sanitation for up to 50% of the population.
- To deal with up to 60% of the refugees who are children, Bangladesh NGO BRAC began work in makeshift settlement communities in the Ukhia and Teknaf sub-districts.
- UNFPA deployed midwives and ‘dignity kits’ to provide sexual and reproductive health services to women and girls who encompass 67% of all Rohingya refugees. Humanitarian needs are huge and UNFPA is trying to raise a further $13 million to fund its activities in Cox’s Bazar.
Refugee community relief
The most effective relief efforts are being carried out by existing Rohingya refugees and locals, who are helping traumatized, exhausted, and malnourished new arrivals in need. Large refugee volunteer forces supplemented by Bangladeshi citizens have been mobilized throughout the Kutupalong and Nayapara camps. They work closely with local residents and rely on financial support from UNHCR to fund things like the communal kitchens, which were started by refugees and managed in coordination with the camp authorities.
Lack of communication and government authority restrictions have heavily contributed to the delay in providing sufficient humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya in both Bangladesh and those who remain in the Rakhine state. Poorly coordinated aid efforts come at the cost of lives, a sobering reality illustrated by harrowing reports of families drowning in capsized boats and refugees blown up by antipersonnel landmines planted by Burmese authorities.
Mehmet Kalkan, the managing director of a company that supplies emergency relief products to UNHCR told AidEx that he believed the greatest challenge in the aid and development field is poor communication between international bodies. He commented: “The system is not fully operational in terms of cooperation and activities. Emergency humanitarian aid channels must be very transparent and all obstacles to emergency humanitarian aid must be removed. All international organizations should do as much as possible to be transparent.”
The international community does a good job but it can do more. The impact of aid can be maximized if agencies act in solidarity when carrying out shared goals to provide emergency and long-term relief. This requires effective communication between all sectors involved in relief efforts—from giant aid agencies and government bodies, to private individual donors, local NGOs, and beneficiaries. The key to implementing emergency relief is big INGO money and donor funds to help mobilize and support people on the ground.
Ultimately, the Rohingya refugee crisis is yet another example of how global solutions to worldwide humanitarian crises rely on working partnerships. After all, if those who have nothing can help, why can’t the rest of us?
About the author: Anastasia Kyriacou works for AidEx, the world leading platform for international humanitarian aid and development professionals. She explores current and controversial issues with the aim of instigating crucial dialogue among the community within the sector and beyond.
Photo Credit: Mathias Eick, EU/ECHO, Rakhine State, Myanmar/Burma