As of July 2021, only $366 million of around $1 billion humanitarian assistance fund required for Rohingya refugees has been committed or disbursed. The disbursement has declined to 34 percent of the total money required; it used to be within the range of 72 to 75 percent in the first three years of the Rohingya influx since 2017. Bangladesh, the host country for the vast majority of Rohingyas who fled atrocities in Myanmar, is left increasingly to fund their care on its own.
This downward trend in disbursements raises a question: Has the world forgotten the plight of the Rohingyas?
2021 marks the fourth anniversary of the military-backed “clearance operation” in Myanmar, followed by a massive exodus of hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas in what UNHRC dubbed a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” While the rest of the world turned blind eye to the Rohingyas, Bangladesh generously extended temporary shelter to them. These stateless people have equal rights to lead a dignified life and build a stable future in their homeland like everyone else, which can be guaranteed only if the world community expresses solidarity with them. A stable funding commitment from long-standing donors is a prerequisite for food security, safe water, health care, and non-food items for 1.1 million Rohingyas currently living in Bangladesh.
The ultimate solution, safe and sustainable repatriation, seems a distant reality even after signing two repatriation agreements, due to Myanmar’s unwillingness to create conducive conditions for their return. Until repatriation becomes possible, the world must stand by the one of the largest refugee-hosting countries in the world, Bangladesh, to uphold the dignity of the “world’s most persecuted minority” of our time.
Donors’ unwillingness to open their purses as much as the crisis demands may further intensify the crisis. Foreign aid for Rohingyas had started declining after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a result of global economic strain caused by the pandemic. Then the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan created a new humanitarian crisis by displacing millions of Afghans. This has resulted in the significant slashing of foreign donations to address the Rohingya issue.
Bangladesh is bearing a substantial economic burden for supporting the persecuted Rohingyas. The Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD), a Bangladeshi think tank, reported that Bangladesh has to spend around $1.22 billion every year on Rohingya refugees, a number bound to grow with the population, increasing inflation, and the decline in foreign aid. According to the CPD, around $7 billion would be required to host and support the Rohingya refugees for the first five years without repatriation. And even when repatriation starts, the CPD estimated that it will take 12 years if 300 Rohingyas are being repatriated every day, assuming current population growth remains constant. It is next to impossible for a country like Bangladesh to afford this colossal expenditure, as it relies heavily on external debt to meet its budget deficit already.
The Rohingya crisis is the result of a long-smoldering conflict, which may be a catalyst for new sources of conflict. The tremendous funding shortage may lead to the emergence of newer challenges including extortion, prostitution, human trafficking, drug trafficking, radicalization as well as intra-group and inter-group conflicts, which recently led to the killing of Rohingya leader Mohibullah. Moreover, financial shortages will have a devastating impact on children and women. Ignoring these challenges may be a boomerang not only for Bangladesh but also for the rest of the world by deteriorating regional stability. As international aid dwindles, Bangladesh faces increased challenges in managing this beleaguered community. Besides, the unavailability of funds at the right time may create immense pressure on Bangladesh to deliver essential services to these refugees. Many local NGOs are now providing humanitarian assistance to Rohingya with their own funds, which will not be sustainable in the long term without external donations.
The best way to counter the aforementioned challenges is to ensure regular financial flows, which cannot be borne alone by Bangladesh. To plug the funding gap, the Bangladesh government may initiate a joint fundraising campaign to pool contributions from individual and institutional donors by convincing them to extend their hands to help distressed Rohingyas. Bangladesh should leave no stone unturned to make sure that the Rohingya issue is not sidelined and continues to attract international focus. Bangladesh must keep the agenda alive through strong diplomatic maneuvers pointing out how insufficient funds are intensifying the trauma already inflicted upon Rohingyas. Bangladesh must echo this issue in different regional and global platforms. Moreover, it is equally important to emphasize effective utilization of funds, which can be done by slashing the number of high-paid foreign employees and involving more local NGOs.
Rohingya communities are in dire need of international support. A well-coordinated 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 alone. The “do no harm” principle must be followed while delivering lifesaving assistance to Rohingya to avoid inadvertently fueling any new conflicts.
For a long-term solution, the shared efforts of the global community are needed to engender the circumstances required to end the plight of persecuted Rohingyas. But in the meantime, 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 U.N. should play the role of torchbearer in bringing global donors together to address the financial strain, highlighting how this may create an acute human rights crisis and worsen the circumstances further. Although safe repatriation is the ultimate sustainable solution to the protracted Rohingya crisis, it is equally crucial to redress Bangladesh’s growing challenges in hosting Rohingyas through ensuring comprehensive financial assistance. Failure of repatriation and funding shortages invite the risk of further devastating developments.