Opinion: Here's how the international community should respond to the Rohingya refugee crisis

A view of the Kutupalong makeshift camp in Cox's Bazaar, where many Rohingya who have fled Myanmar live in 2015. Photo by: Pierre Prakash / ECHO / CC BY-NC-ND

Half a world away, thousands of people are uprooting their lives from the country they called home, and putting everything at stake to flee. As Myanmar’s regime continues to perpetrate horrific acts of violence against the Rohingya community — acts that a U.N. official called a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing” — half a million civilians have already fled. It’s the swiftest outflow of refugees since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. On September 28, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said that the horrific campaign of violence has "spiraled into the world's fastest-developing refugee emergency, a humanitarian and human rights nightmare."

Bangladesh is now home to over 809,000 Rohingya refugees, creating a situation the country’s government officials describe as “untenable.” This inflow of refugees puts a strain on a country that already ranks among the poorest 50 countries in the world. And many Rohingya are fleeing to one of Bangladesh’s poorest districts.

As world leaders meet in Washington, D.C., this week at the World Bank Annual Meetings and G-20 meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors, they must come together to call on Bangladesh to offer a safe haven to Rohingya refugees. But Bangladesh can’t be expected to take on this burden alone.

Here are three ways the international community should support Bangladesh as it grapples with this crisis.

1. We need to offer immediate aid and assistance. 

The international community should immediately offer a bold package of assistance to meet the needs of both refugees and host communities in Bangladesh. The U.N. estimates that the crisis requires $434 million. Even if the international community could commit this amount, it still wouldn’t be enough to fully meet the challenge. The government of Bangladesh is already struggling to provide basic necessities such as food and clean water to communities where refugees are now settling. Even before the recent influx, tensions were rising between locals and Rohingya refugees over scarce resources and job opportunities. International support can’t just be for refugees, it must also help improve the standard of living for host communities.

In response to the Syrian refugee crisis, donors including the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development offered Jordan and Lebanon, which host more than 1.6 million registered refugees, significant resources to meet the needs of both refugees and citizens. This has created the possibility of a win-win solution for both groups and has been good politics for the host countries’ governments. This type of compact — an agreement that includes policy changes to expand refugee rights and programs to improve the well-being of refugees and hosts — offers benefits for everyone. Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina must respond to demands to deliver for her constituents first and foremost, and a compact of this kind can generate domestic support for recognizing, hosting, and supporting refugees now and in the longer term.

2. We need to offer more than aid as part of refugee compacts. 

The international community should consider new policies and programs that will help the people of Bangladesh and Rohingya succeed, including reducing trade barriers and opening new markets for Bangladeshi companies, providing technical assistance to help the government tackle difficult economic issues, and facilitating private sector investment that will help Bangladesh make critical economic reforms that pay dividends in the long term. One of the breakthrough elements of the Jordan compact was the offer of European Union trade concessions for companies employing Syrian refugees. The details aren’t easy to get right, but if the international community wants to make a real difference in the future of Bangladesh, it needs to look at policies that enable sustainable gains.

3. We need to plan for this crisis to endure. 

The world’s refugees have been displaced for an average of 10 years, and for those displaced more than five years, that average climbs to over 21 years. Right now, the focus must be on providing lifesaving support to a population that is vulnerable and traumatized. But those who are not on the frontlines providing humanitarian support should begin to plan for how programs should adapt as the crisis continues. How do we ensure education for refugee children? What about health services or jobs? At the outset of the Syrian crisis, plans to increase access to certain services, such as education, were delayed partly in hopes that a peace settlement would enable refugees to return home. But the Syria crisis is now in its sixth year, and about 60 percent of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon and 38 percent in Jordan are out of school, making them more vulnerable to violence, child labor, and child marriage.

The reality is that there is little prospect that the Rohingya refugees will be able to return home any time soon. While the international community should continue to press for an end to the terrible violence in Myanmar, they should also work with the government of Bangladesh on solutions that will address needs now and in the long haul. The international community has an opportunity to improve the situation in Bangladesh — not just for the Rohingya refugees, but for Bangladeshis as well.

And even though this crisis may seem like it’s thousands of miles away from capitals in Europe and North America, the situation hits close to home for leaders who are facing pressure to reduce refugee resettlement in their own countries. They can relate to the political challenges that Prime Minister Hasina is facing, and should appreciate that they don’t face the other economic and development challenges she is tackling at the same time.

It’s time for the international community to step up and offer a bold package of support that meets the needs of Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshis. Failure to do so will worsen what is already one of the great tragedies of our time.

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About the author

  • Cindy Huang

    Cindy Huang is a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, where she works on issues related to refugees, U.S. development policy and fragile and conflict-affected states. Previously, Cindy served in the Obama administration as the director of policy of the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations and was deputy vice president at the Millennium Challenge Corporation. Cindy is also the author of a recent report, "Refugee Compacts: Addressing the Crisis of Protracted Displacement."