Following approximately 87,000 new Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh from October 2016 to March 2017, the northern Rokhine state saw recent violence against police outposts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), resulting in Burmese security forces responding with an escalation of violence since August 25, 2017. In this response, Human Rights Watch reported destruction of homes, arson, killing, and looting by the Burmese security forces. As of September 19, 214 villages in the Rakhine state were destroyed since August 25. As a result, Bangladesh’s borders saw a large influx of Rohingya refugees fleeing from the area. This influx of new refugees in Bangladesh strains an already limited resource environment.
The Rohingya are a Sunni Muslim minority in Arakan, the historical name for the Myanmar border region that was renamed as the Rakhine state in 1989. The Rohingya are considered to be “stateless” due to systemic discrimination in Myanmar under the 1982 Citizenship Law, which deterred citizenship for Rohingya amongst other ethnic groups. Amidst complex political unrest and violence, the Rakhine state share a long history of refugee migration and repatriation with Bangladesh, Pakistan, Thailand, and Malaysia. Bangladesh has seen two previously large influxes of Rohingya refugee migration: the first in 1978 and the second in 1991-1992 with each encompassing around 250,000 people. In response, international organizations like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN Joint Initiative provided support to support previous influxes. In 2008, the UNHCR developed the Special Initiative on Protracted Refugee Situations that outlined support for some of the largest refugee situations across the world including the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
In the most recent influx, the UNHCR has reported as of October 6, that 515,000 refugees have fled Myanmar to Bangladesh. In southern Bangladesh, two official refugee camps set up in the 1990’s lie in Kutupalong in Cox Bazar area and Nayapara, which previously held a combined population around 77,000 people. Converted communal shelters that normally house 10 people, are now inhabited by 20 to 30 to accommodate the new influx. With camp resources strained, a disproportionate number of refugees are residing outside of the two camps. Within camps, refugees are vulnerable to adverse climate events, malnutrition, infrastructure concerns, and health risk including cholera and diarrhea. Outside of camps, the picture becomes more obscure.
As of September 22, UNHCR estimated of the then 420,000 new refugees, 389,000 were living in make-shift camps and sites along the roadside. Occupation also extends to the Teknaf and Ukhia outside of the camps with undocumented resettlements in other areas of Bangladesh. In response, on September 14th, the Bangladesh government allocated 2,000 acres of forest land adjacent to the existing Kutupalong settlement for a new camp and recently also promised an additional 1,000 acres of land. On September 17, the UNHCR announced support for additional housing resources known as the Kutupalong extension to extend past the Kutulong Camp to house 3,500 families selected by community leaders. However, amidst these commitments, the potential capacity and new refugee population figures reflect a vast gap in an already resource-strained environment. Maps of Kutupalong refugee camp show the extent of growth of makeshift settlements beyond the refugee camps before and after August 2017.
As Bangladesh looks to another influx of new Rohingya refugees amidst resources limitations, scale up efforts highlight underlying historical challenges. Since the enactment of the 1951 UNHCR Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol which aimed to ensure the protection of refugees and regulate refugee affairs, UNHCR has noted that Bangladesh has not signed the convention nor the protocol. According to a publication from UNHCR in 2008, there is also a limitation of regulations and laws governing refugee rights and affairs in Bangladesh at a national and international level.
Amongst the challenges mentioned in the UNHCR 2009 New Issues in Refugee Research, coordination with host governments can challenge the effectiveness of initiatives; a dichotomy between the appearance of government encouragement of hosting refugees against reluctance to integrate refugee populations permanently underlies many regions. Regarding the tension between host countries and separated refugee populations, in a UNHCR review by the Policy Development and Evaluation Services (PDES) from 2011, the UNHCR PDES noted refugee desires to escape induced large scale repatriation. Further, refugee population figures are obscured by regional sentiments that work against documentation of Rohingya. In Bangladesh, Rohingya are referred to as Undocumented Myanmar Nationals and are considered illegal immigrants in Bangladeshi law. While the UNHCR has issued photo identification cards for Rohingya within camps, they are not officially recognized by the government and cannot preclude refugees from arrest or detainment. Similarly, within camps, birth registration cards are issued in clinics but are not recognized by authorities. However, outside of camps, unregistered refugees cannot obtain birth registration cards. Difficulties in pathways to citizenship and induced repatriation may highlight some challenges currently affecting support for the Rohingya refugees. Apprehension against refugee populations are reflected in policing as well with monitoring of Rohingya leaving the camps until they return to their countries of origin. Police have also asked citizens not reject housing for Rohingya refugees.
According to the UNHCR 2009 New Issues in Refugee Research publication, which speaks globally, some remedies include promotion of interaction between refugee and local populations, support of the role of the state, communication of UNHCR’s capacity limitations amidst shifting priorities, and working other international and local actors.