An alternative to 'refugee camp, then repatriation' strategy for Rohingya crisis?

Rohingya refugees stand on a hill overlooking dwellings in the Kutupalong makeshift refugee camp, in Cox’s Bazar district in Bangladesh. Photo by: © UNICEF / Brown

BANGKOK — During Monday’s Rohingya pledging conference, government representatives expressed gratitude for Bangladesh’s open borders, support for a strong humanitarian response, and hope that the Rohingya people are eventually able to return to their homes in Myanmar — from which they’ve fled brutal violence since August 25, following decades of statelessness.

But Kilian Kleinschmidt, whose humanitarian career spans 25 years and who previously managed Jordan’s Zaatari Refugee Camp, would propose a strategy for this complex crisis that doesn’t involve the construction of a refugee camp in Bangladesh while waiting for mass repatriation to Myanmar.

It’s time to disrupt the “temporary” mindset automatically adopted in refugee situations, he told Devex, and to instead harness demographic changes as a trigger for positive growth. For Kleinschmidt, a leader in a growing movement to rethink the refugee camp concept, this should come in the form of a “special development zone” in Bangladesh — a take on special economic zones he’s been researching through the Innovation & Planning Agency, an organization he founded after leaving UNHCR in 2014 to explore new solutions to humanitarian crises.

The Bangladesh government has openly stated that the country will not grant refugee status to Rohingya and wants to work instead toward the “safe, dignified, voluntary return of its nationals back to their homes in Myanmar,” said Shameem Ahsan, Bangladesh’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, at the U.N. pledging conference.

In reality, humanitarian actors still face restricted access in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state — where the military has targeted violent attacks toward the population — and Myanmar officials have denied the international outcry of ethnic cleansing.

There appears “very little hope that [Rohingya] will be going back for the next couple of decades or so,” Kleinschmidt said. “So the question now is, ‘Who should be developing what?’”

Humanitarian actors in Cox’s Bazar in the meantime are building what will be the world’s largest refugee camp on 3,000 acres of land allotted by the Bangladesh government, though at the same time lobbying for smaller, dispersed camps. The acreage has been billed as short-term — a space “to build temporary shelters for the Rohingya newcomers,” according to a Facebook post by Mohammed Shahriar Alam, a junior minister for foreign affairs in Bangladesh.

This focus on “temporary” is the first mistake, according to Kleinschmidt, who is largely credited with transforming Jordan’s now five-year-old “temporary'” Zaatari camp into the country’s fourth largest city. There, about 80,000 people have settled in prefabricated container homes. While the camp faces its own challenges, the community has created a functioning marketplace within its limits.

Instead, the focus on long-term investment in the form of a “special development zone” would suit the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh, Kleinschmidt said — and humanitarian agencies are not the ones who should be building it.

“I think a real bold step forward would be to come up with a proposal to the Bangladeshi government, to say ‘Look, you have potentially 1 million people, they will be a burden as they are if you let humanitarian agencies continue for the next 20, 30, 50, 100 years to take care of them,” he said. “Let’s flip the whole thing, let the humanitarian agencies respond now, but let’s work on a plan to build up a new special development zone, which will combine these settlements with opportunities for your own people who have to move.”

Many existing special economic zones — areas where business and trade laws are different from the rest of the country — “are driven by political, short-sighted decisions, so there has to be due diligence on what the location is and what the potential is,” Kleinschmidt said. The zone would require a multi-stakeholder partnership and likely a group of professional developers to build up infrastructure and build in advanced technologies, financial systems, and land tenure mechanisms — basically an entire economy — “where people from different parts of the world can live and thrive together,” he said.

The idea may appeal to Bangladesh especially, he added, considering the country is facing its own crisis with rapidly growing climate change displacement and resulting urbanization challenges.

Humanitarian actors are very much needed at this time in the response, he said, and would continue to have a place supporting protection and other issues. But professional developers would be in the driver’s seat.

“You attract investment, you’re creating jobs, you’re building up real infrastructure, you’re moving that completely out of humanitarian logic,” Kleinschmidt said.

The idea also potentially addresses the issue of stretched humanitarian funding to address the health and safety of more than 800,000 refugees in the long run.

“U.N. agencies will need to continue to update and adapt our appeal to support beyond what we have put out and we are discussing today,” said Mark Lowcock, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, during Monday’s pledging conference. “Let me be clear — funding is a major constraint. We need more money to keep pace with intensifying needs.”

A total of about 35 countries and organizations have now pledged $344 million for both Bangladesh and Myanmar responses since the crisis began on August 25. As of Wednesday, the U.N.’s response plan appeal is about 30 percent funded, with $132.6 million received, according to OCHA’s Financial Tracking Service.

As for the number of refugees, “we say it’s huge, but it’s huge for the humanitarian sector because the humanitarian sector is only a $25 billion [industry] a year,” Kleinschmidt said. “It’s a joke the money which is available.”

Instead, Asian investors, potentially together with the EU, should put together a $50 billion package to invest in proper infrastructure, technology, factories, and service delivery, he said.

“If it is not driven by the humanitarians, then the Bangladesh government will for sure react to this positively,” he added. “The politics of ‘Oh my God, now we’re settling the Rohingya’ will be overdriven by ‘Now we are getting a real investment package, now we use that as a positive trigger for development.’”

In the meantime, Kleinschmidt advocates against viewing repatriation as the only positive solution. The UNHCR promotes three durable solutions for refugees as part of its core mandate, the most preferred being voluntary return, then local integration, followed by resettlement.

“I think that sort of classification with these three options, with voluntary return as the preferred, leads to the public opinion in Europe, in Jordan, in Bangladesh that a good refugee is a returning refugee,” Kleinschmidt said. “It blocks all of us in actually saying, ‘Well guys, now you’re here, now let’s check you in. Later, if you want to go back, you go back.’”

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.