From 2015, huge numbers of Rohingyas started arriving on the Bangladesh border fleeing persecution from the Myanmar military. Arnab Roy Chowdhury (Moscow, Russia) and Ahmed Abid (Sydney, Australia) explain how by stepping in to support Bangladesh to cope with the refugee crisis, intergovernmental organisations and NGOs have shaped new processes, norms, and institutions of policy advice and refugee management on behalf of the government.
The crisis that now engulfs the Myanmar-Bangladesh border started in 2016 when the Harakah al-Yaqin, a Rohingya insurgent group, attacked the Tatmadaw, the Burmese military, in Maungdaw Township. As has been widely reported, the counterinsurgency measure was disproportionately large: massacre, arson, and rape, and the displacement of 700,000 Rohingyas. Around 100,000 Rohingya remain in Myanmar as Internally Displaced Persons in ghettoised camps, the conditions of which are ghoulish beyond imagination.
Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh
About 90 per cent of the Rohingya population currently live in Bangladesh, mostly at 28 collective sites and 99 other dispersed locations. Two of these collective sites are government-registered camps, and most of the other collective sites are managed by intergovernmental organisations like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Organization for Migration (IOM) and by other nongovernmental organisations (NGOs).
The UNHCR and IOM mediate legal rehabilitation and settlement in a third country and over the years, the Rohingyas have migrated legally or illegally from Bangladesh to many countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Pakistan, and Gambia. The recent influx of so many refugees has unquestionably strained the resources and infrastructure of Bangladesh. But how has Bangladesh managed the Rohingya refugee crisis so long? And how has the participation of international organisations developed the country’s refugee policy and management system?
The Rohingya crisis and the evolution of a Policy Advisory System
It is clear than in the last few years that the Rohingya refugee crisis has shaped an internationally standardised and systematised ‘policy advisory system’ of individuals, organisations, and institutions that advises the Bangladesh government on managing the refugee crisis. The participation and representation of this multiplicity of voices has given informed policy advice; made the system more systematic, accountable, rational, and humane; and reduced the politicisation of the domestic refugee management and policy advisory system. However, it has also created new political problems.
The politicising of ‘illegal migrants’
Bangladesh, a newly independent developing country, is not a signatory to the 1951 refugee convention; the Rohingyas are ‘illegal migrants’. However, Bangladesh considered the Rohingya crisis an emergency and initially managed it ad hoc with its domestic advisory bodies and refugee management system that comprised mainly the state bureaucracy and ministries. However, this system soon became politicised. ‘Illegal migrants’ were exploited; vote bank politics led the ruling regime to exert political pressure and give many Rohingyas citizenship, many of whom migrated from Bangladesh illegally. A certain class of Rohingya leaders emerged in the camps, called Mahjees, and gained immense power and faced accusations of exploiting the system in their favour.
This has happened partly because there existed no proper, standardised system of enumerating and registering refugees. When the influx of refugees began increasing in size and frequency from 1991–92, the Bangladesh government externalised and internationalised the policy advice process to augment its low policy capacity. It involved international organisations expert at refugee management, such as the UNHCR, in managing and institutionalising its domestic policy advice and refugee management systems.
From 2015, huge numbers of Rohingya started arriving on the Bangladesh border, and a rapid scaling-up and comprehensive humanitarian response was necessary, but the Government of Bangladesh could not perform this task alone. They amplified the process of externalisation of policy advice and refugee management by involving the UNHCR, IOM, and their partner NGOs in a greater capacity to manage the crisis. These organisations participated in multiple sectors of refugee management and systematically organised aspects such as site and camp administration, food, medicine, managing women’s and children issues, tracking of refugees crossing borders, etc.
NGOs and identifying refugees
From 2017 onwards, the UNCHR and IOM – along with the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC), a body established by the Government of Bangladesh – systematised the tracking, enumeration, and registration of refugees. They began giving identity cards and family cards to enable access to minimum benefits, and collected household information and gender – and age-disaggregated data to make a database of refugees and govern the refugee situation properly.
IOM started a site management needs and population monitoring exercise as triangulated estimates of the number of refugees arrived through key informants, flow monitoring of refugees at major displacement sites, and making household estimates. IOM has created an Inter-sectoral Coordination Group to manage this crisis in a concerted, comprehensive manner.
As these organisations came in and started working with the Bangladesh government in the field, new processes, norms, and institutions of policy advice and refugee management were established and institutionalised and benefitted the domestic policy capacity of the government by making it dynamic. This international standardisation reduced some of the domestic politicisation in the system, but led to another kind of politicisation.
Many intergovernmental organisations and international NGOs (INGOs) started acting as petty republics and began running parallel governance structures. Many of them work in restricted zones or without government permission or consent, particularly in areas that jeopardise state security. Recently an NGO director barred RRRC officials from inspecting its office; the government retaliated by asking the director to leave the country immediately. The UNHCR let in more refugees from no man’s land, in itself a humane act, but without the government’s permission.
When other countries, such as those in Europe, are detaining refugees, the Bangladesh government’s magnanimous response, despite its comparative lack of resources and monetary power, is laudable. However, the recent Rohingya refugee crisis has created a few significant problems. In Cox’s Bazar, a resource crunch is leading to conflicts between the host communities and refugees. Various illegal activities are increasing around a border that is now relatively penetrable and open, and the clearing of forest cover for setting up rehabilitation camps has caused significant ecological damage to the area.
All these problems have put the current government’s internal legitimacy and governance capacity under scrutiny, though it has won much praise from the international community of state and civil society organisations.
This post has been adapted from the following article: Arnab Roy Chowdhury (2019) International-domestic linkages in a developing-country context: the case of the Rohingyas in Bangladesh, Policy Studies, 40(3-4): 303-319.
This article gives the views of the author and not the position of South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Featured image: Rohingya children playing at a UNICEF child friendly space. Credit: DFID, Creative Commons.