Rohingya refugee crisis holds lessons for Ukraine
As Conflicts Continue And Global Priorities Change, Even The Most Sympathetic Communities Can Lose Their Enthusiasm For Hosting
Countries in Europe have opened their borders and homes to Ukrainians fleeing Russian aggression. Of course, Ukrainians are far from the first group of refugees to need shelter and welcome from host countries.
Refugees are vulnerable people who, because of limited opportunities in refugee camps, can be exposed to human trafficking, criminal activities, drug peddling, prostitution and radicalization.
But a refugee crisis doesn’t simply end with placing vulnerable, often traumatized people in congested camps or even family homes. As conflicts continue and global priorities change, even the most sympathetic communities can lose their enthusiasm for hosting.
Bangladesh, a highly populated country with its own challenges and resource constraints, has become in the last five years one of the leading countries hosting displaced people.
More than one million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar entered Bangladesh in 2017, living mainly in makeshift camps in Ukhiya and Teknaf, two areas in the Cox’s Bazar district.
In the early days, Bangladeshi communities were lauded for their response to the influx of Rohingya refugees, providing lifesaving assistance before the state, non-governmental organizations and the international community.
The Bangladeshi government has been working with various humanitarian actors to ensure that various essential needs such as food, shelter, cooking materials, healthcare and education are met in the camps.
Although host communities were initially highly compassionate and supportive, recently there has been tension. The situation is an example of how sympathetic communities can become frustrated, angry or even hostile over time.
We believe this can offer some important insights into how the Ukrainian refugee crisis could play out if the enthusiasm and resources dry up in the coming months.
We interviewed 20 members of the host community and 20 Bangladeshi humanitarian workers, who described a decline in sympathy towards the Rohingyas. The findings surprised us and may not be representative of the entire Rohingya population living in Bangladesh.
We interviewed Rohingya refugees for a previous study and found that they felt extremely grateful to the Bangladeshi hosts for their hospitality. But, host communities’ increasingly negative perception of Rohingya refugees threatens their peaceful coexistence. As one humanitarian worker said:
Many local people had to abandon their houses and land that are now located inside the Rohingya camps. After the settlement of Rohingyas in the camps, when [locals] tried to access or use their lands again, they were regularly countered by the Rohingyas who are very compact as a group. People [locals] once welcomed are now quite aggressive towards them, [which has] resulted in violent clashes.
There have been many allegations leveled against the Rohingyas, including that they are involved in radical extremist activities and pose security threats. Bangladesh’s prime minister has openly called the Rohingyas a “burden.”
Rohingyas in Bangladeshi camps have been lured by criminal gangs and human traffickers and become involved in various criminal activities and drug peddling. One community leader cited this as a factor behind the recent contempt, saying they are taking part in “evil deeds.”
Bangladesh officially recognizes the Rohingyas as “Forcibly Displaced Myanmar Nationals” instead of refugees, which prevents them from being able to work. Recent evidence suggests that as a result of this, many Rohingyas have resorted to petty crimes and theft. As one humanitarian worker told us:
Previously, there were very few incidents but now, these are frequent. Every night something is being stolen from the houses of the local community. Also, thousands of humanitarian workers live here and usually possess mobile phones, laptops or other electronic items. Their houses are also targets for theft.
Like in the early days of the current Rohingya crisis, there has been a certain amount of positivity and enthusiasm about hosting Ukrainian refugees. However, there might also be some early signs of exhaustion and a tinge of skepticism, as we have observed in Bangladesh.
If a crisis is dealt with on an ad-hoc basis and not addressed as a long-term issue, refugees may turn to alternative risky opportunities which might put them in harm’s way. As we have seen in Bangladesh, this could jeopardize the whole objective of supporting the refugees.
There are concerns about the resource availability that would be required to host the large number of Ukrainian refugees. Already, there is evidence that some Ukrainians may be taken advantage of through the systems designed to help them.
It is important to have a longer-term plan for jobs, safety and healthcare among the hosting governments, EU, UN bodies and civil society organizations that are actively involved in hosting the Ukrainian refugees, so the situation does not follow the precedent set in Bangladesh.