BANGKOK — Six months after nearly 700,000 Rohingya refugees fled Myanmar for Bangladesh — creating the world’s fastest-growing humanitarian emergency — actors in the international aid community are exploring sustainable solutions.
Early plans for repatriation, which left humanitarians on the ground in the dark, and were met with fierce disapproval from human rights groups, have stalled. And while a controversial $280 million project is underway to turn a remote island into a home for at least 100,000 refugees, now is the time to plan for the longer term well-being of refugees and their host communities in Bangladesh, said Cindy Huang, co-director of migration, displacement, and humanitarian policy at the Center for Global Development.
One model on the table is a refugee compact, which would require uniting the Bangladesh government, donors, and the international community to develop a multiyear commitment to foster inclusive growth and opportunity for refugees as well as host communities.
The refugee compact model has previously been adopted in Jordan and Lebanon to help bridge the humanitarian-development divide and improve education and livelihoods opportunities while offering financial incentives to host countries — like European Union trade concessions. The ability for refugees to work, own businesses, and attend school enables them to become economic contributors to their host countries, and it’s an element of Jordan’s compact that Huang would like to see replicated in Bangladesh.
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Huang has spent time examining and reporting on the shortcomings of existing compacts, including Jordan’s, but “big picture, I think it’s critical to recognize that six months before the Jordan compact, if an advocate or an NGO talked about giving the right to work to refugees, they might have been asked to leave the room or told that’s a dead-end conversation,” she said. “I think while the Jordan compact isn’t perfect, it changed the policy conversation.”
Huang, who will research a possible Bangladesh compact during the next year, sees several critical elements for creating a successful agreement in the South Asian country, which “is not at all to minimize the political challenges and realities that exist,” she said.
As with Jordan, the EU could once again come to the table — this time to expand trade preferences with Bangladesh, which must consider its impending graduation from least developed country status and an export revenue that could decline by more than an estimated 5 percent.
But unlike Jordan, Huang would like to move away from a focus on rewarding companies that hire at least 15 percent refugees on certain product lines.
“I think that with Bangladesh, you take measures to increase inclusive growth in Cox’s Bazar and potentially other places, and part of that holistic package is a broader right to work, freedom of movement, and right to education — rather than emphasizing specific deals or product lines,” she said.
There's also a possibility to increase opportunity for Bangladeshi migrant workers by including provisions for greater numbers of workers in the Gulf and Southeast Asia. It’s an arrangement that could help meet labor demand and increase earning opportunities for Bangladeshis, but one that hasn’t yet been explored in other compacts, Huang said.
Huang will devote time this year to figure out if there is potential in these agreements to expand opportunities for refugees to work in Bangladesh or potentially even in other countries, recognizing that this would require policy work to raise the standards of accountability and conditions for decent work for everyone.
As for who would be involved in the compact, “there is an important balance between the number of actors and therefore incentives that can be brought to the table and the whole logistics of getting it done,” said Huang, who previously worked at Millennium Challenge Corporation, where a compact could take two to three years to negotiate.
Ideally, Huang said, the World Bank would anchor the compact through their new financing subwindow for the world’s poorest countries, which has $2 billion available to help countries manage refugee influxes, targeting both refugees and host communities with longer term solutions.
Coming in behind World Bank analysis might be the Asian Development Bank along with bilateral donors, including some of the Gulf States and China, which could accelerate or expand Belt and Road Initiative and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank projects in Bangladesh, for example, to include provisions for Rohingya employment in their implementation. There is no doubt that civil society and the private sector should also be invited to the table early on, but Huang and her team will need to do more research before determining whether India, which could also offer certain mobility incentives, should be brought in as well.
“You need someone with the political will from each of these actors to engage in those longer term negotiations,” said Huang, whose team will visit Bangladesh in May to speak with Bangladesh government representatives.
Huang envisions a two-stage process to address the fact that a compact involving so many actors will be undoubtedly slow to negotiate — and that there is no time to waste considering the dire humanitarian situation in Bangladesh’s seaside district. The first stage would be “a quick injection” of resources on the scale of $100 million to $200 million so that local communities in Cox's Bazar see immediate benefit. In the meantime, “you would work on this longer negotiated process with five or six main actors,” Huang explained.
Huang sees the compact approach as a “no lose” proposition since it helps both communities build skills and assets that are important now and in the future — including if and when refugees return home.
“We should act with urgency because the window of opportunity could close if communities see only costs, not benefits, from hosting refugees,” Huang said.
Update March 20, 2018: This article has been updated to clarify that the percent of refugees on product lines in Jordan is 15 percent.