Our shared commitment to Rohingya refugees

Rohingya refugee children walk along the road at Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, 16 November 2018.Reuters file photo

As the concrete road leads to a brick-laden one, and the surrounding changes from old trees and crop fields to barbed wire fences and shelters of bamboo and tarpaulin; there lies a mass of humanity forsaken by many - the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. Soon in sight though, are bright-eyed children, men and women gathered in distribution centres, stalls selling daily-ware, refugee volunteers in uniform and a general bustling community.

Returning to Cox’s Bazar after five years, I realise much has changed - some for the better and some not. What was a humanitarian emergency in 2017-2018 has lapsed into a protracted situation. My memories of brown dusty hills, shorn of cover which have now been regreened – a demonstration of human efforts to return the natural cover of the area. Make-shift home kitchen gardens abound on top of the shelters’ plastic roofs. There are now learning centres, improved sanitation, sturdier albeit handmade bridges.

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The visible masses of United Nations and NGO staff teeming earnestly for the refugees is more structured and organised, joining Bangladeshi organisations - all working towards the shared goal of refugee protection together with the authorities, whose well-established Government of Bangladesh’s Camp-in-Charge Offices dot the camps.

The soothing breeze announces the arrival of the Bangladeshi winter, made more pleasant with the canopy above. The refugees’ sighs of home across the hills, though, remains the same. The ardent desire to repatriate when it is safe to do so is visible, amidst tenuous hopes with the re-flaring of conflict in Myanmar.

As the incoming Representative of the UN Refugee Agency in Bangladesh, I am humbled and motivated at the possibilities and responsibilities of this role - only made possible through collective action across humanitarian and development sectors.

Until this is possible, urgent and collective efforts are needed to enable refugees to go about their daily lives without the threat of murder, threats, kidnapping, abduction and extortion - all of which are increasing concerns

Over decades, the people of Bangladesh have shown long standing generosity in sheltering Rohingya fleeing violence in Myanmar. I remember how Ukhiya and Teknaf families opened their doors in solidarity to the persecuted arrivals. This kindness and prevalence of humanity marks Bangladesh where there exist living memories of over 10 million uprooted in 1971.

In search of solutions, and having had little to no self-reliance since 2017, Rohingya refugees continue to be aid-dependent. Global crises have further limited humanitarian resources impacting each family, as food rations reached a record low of USD 8 dollar per person per month. Multiple complexities emanate from a life in limbo, most critical of which are safety risks to those vulnerable.

The Rohingyas’ indomitable desire for education and skills-development has supported their core resilience against tremendous odds including indignity and risks which many in the camps are subjected to. Constructive livelihood opportunities can support the refugees and enhance the local economy. A coordinated humanitarian-development-peace approach is essential for sustainable solutions.

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Until this is possible, urgent and collective efforts are needed to enable refugees to go about their daily lives without the threat of murder, threats, kidnapping, abduction and extortion - all of which are increasing concerns. We also see an increase in dangerous sea journeys of Rohingya.

The UNHCR convened high-level regional consultation on Rohingyas in October brought together governments, refugee-led organisations, private sector, development actors, think-tanks, UN agencies, and NGOs reaffirming collective solidarity with Rohingya refugees and the countries hosting them – particularly Bangladesh. This collective approach to refocus efforts in the region is essential.

This includes upholding the right of refugees to return safely and voluntarily to Myanmar when the situation there is conducive to return; as well as support to hosting countries and communities through continued humanitarian resources; resettlement places for the most vulnerable; and complementary pathways, such as through education and labour mobility.

At the upcoming Global Refugee Forum organised by UNHCR in mid-December, a dedicated session on the Rohingya situation will be possible despite the competing and multiple refugee crises across the globe. This multi-stakeholder dialogue is an opportunity to retain attention on the protection and solutions needs and a Multistakeholder Pledge dedicated to the Rohingya.

I also see the dramatic and tragic barriers of the Rohingya refugees with the local communities, some of which are physical, and others are emotional. Experience of refugee management across the world has taught us that bridges across refugee and host communities are essential for all to thrive and be at peace and harmony, equally benefiting from the facilities and attention that the Cox’s Bazar region is receiving.

As discussions on sustainable return possibilities continue, the volatile situation in the Rakhine and Myanmar must be watched closely. The international community remains in support of the Rohingya in Bangladesh. As a ‘returnee’ to this challenging ‘operation’ in a beautiful country and people, in my own familiar neighbourhood, I urge us all to continue our coordinated efforts to ensure refugees live in safety, dignity and maintain hope for a better future.

*Sumbul Rizvi is the Representative of the UNHCR Operation in Bangladesh.