Bangladesh and Burma: the Rohingya crisis Contents


We are examining DFID’s work in Bangladesh and Burma. This Report is the first output from that inquiry. It focuses on the culmination of decades of marginalisation and abuse of the Rohingya people of Rakhine State in northern Burma. This took the form of a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” perpetrated by the Burmese security forces over the latter half of 2017 causing the flight of over 650,500 Rohingya people into Bangladesh.

This crisis is current and on-going. There is the huge immediate humanitarian challenge of providing shelter, water, food, security, health and education services – not to mention a little dignity and hope – for an enormous, displaced and traumatised population. At the same time, there is the issue of the Rohingya’s longer term future; their constitutional status, security and access to fundamental human rights. These factors are all relevant to consideration of the required conditions under which a return of the Rohingya to Burma might be contemplated.

The Rohingya crisis has provided the international community with an immediate test case for the large measure of consensus reached in 2016 around better ways to respond to humanitarian crises and, separately, to displaced people, migrants and refugees. This initial Report is structured to reflect the key elements of that international consensus to facilitate assessment.

We will return to all these issues in our wider look at work on DFID’s aid programmes in Bangladesh and Burma.

Crisis prevention

There has been evidence of discrimination and abuse of the Rohingya people, and warnings of escalation, even ‘ethnic cleansing’, from a range of sources over many years. This evidence was not translated into effective action by the international community. In fact, continuing engagement with Burma seems to have been interpreted as tacit acceptance of the treatment of the Rohingya, reinforcing the problem. There appears to have been over-optimism about the speed and breadth of democratic reform in Burma. The Rohingya have paid a heavy price for the lack of consensus amongst the international community on how and when to decide to act effectively to prevent or end emerging crises.

Empowering affected people

Bangladesh opened its borders to the Rohingya refugees with its Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, commenting that Bangladesh will help the persecuted because “We know what suffering means”. Bangladesh deserves both recognition and material support in line with international acceptance that hosting displaced people is a “global public good”. Our evidence was that Bangladesh’s main aim is to secure the return of the Rohingya to their “homeland” in Burma. Bangladesh has not granted the Rohingya formal status as refugees, restricts their rights to work and all plans for accommodation seem heavily predicated upon security and managed containment.

Bangladesh seems to be proceeding apace in arranging the return of a substantial first tranche of Rohingya. We recognise that traditional leadership structures across the displaced Rohingya communities have been massively disrupted, but the lack of evidence of consultation or involvement of the Rohingya concerns us.

Gender based violence (GBV)

Predecessor committees have identified the Burmese Army as deploying rape as a weapon of war (2006 and 2014) and the UK Government’s replies confirmed the concern. Evidence we have gathered in the current inquiry makes it clear that rape and sexual violence remain weapons of war and oppression used by the Burmese Army. Given the number of cases reported, we were disappointed that the UK seemed reluctant to commit its full specialist team on sexual violence to assist in this regard. There seems little point urging the Burmese authorities to self-regulate as they have already cleared their military personnel of any wrongdoing (something the UK Government described as “simply not credible”).

There are other GBV issues arising out of the conditions prevalent in the over-crowded camps which include: poor lighting; absence of security for women and girls collecting firewood and performing other tasks away from their camp; lack of privacy around toilets and washing facilities; various aspects of camp life incentivising the arrangement of child marriages with attendant risks; and the vulnerability to traffickers of refugees, especially women and girls.

Supporting refugees and the host community

So far (January 2018), the UK has provided £59 million for the response to the Rohingya crisis; pledging £47 million of this at the initial funding conference in Geneva in October 2017. We welcome the UK Government’s swift action in committing to a substantial sum early in what was obviously emerging as a huge crisis. That conference secured commitments to provide $360 million (about £266 million). Evidence from the Bangladesh Government was that the cost of effective provision of basic services for the displaced Rohingya could be more than £1 billion per year.

There have been NGOs active in Bangladesh since its independence but some organisations raised difficulties with the bureaucracy around registering and re-registering to work in Bangladesh. We urge the UK Government to respectfully discuss this matter with counterparts in Bangladesh seeking any means of reducing the burden of regulation without compromising security or coordination.

We welcome the UK Government’s recognition of the situation in Burma and Bangladesh as a “protracted crisis”. The implications of this are a need to consider the foundations for longer term provision of services such as education and for a way for the Rohingya to develop livelihoods and become more self-reliant, perhaps even contributing to the economy of their host country.

Safe and durable solutions and voluntary returns

Some witnesses saw the Rohingya crisis as a test case for the learning of lessons presented by other crises — for instance in Rwanda, Bosnia, or Sudan — and the realisation of the “never again” commitment embodied in the “responsibility to protect” principle. We welcome the concept behind the UK Government’s “5-point plan” around which it is seeking to galvanise the international community. The 5 points are: the cessation of violence by the Burmese security forces; humanitarian access to be guaranteed in Burma; any return of refugees to be in a voluntary, safe and dignified manner; full implementation of the Kofi Annan Advisory Commission’s recommendations; and, above all, full access for, and cooperation with, the UN Human Rights Council’s fact-finding mission.

However, our evidence indicates there is little by way of international consensus and activity behind the plan. In addition, each strand presents substantial challenges in terms of implementation and the likelihood of effective independent observation and validation being easily put in place. There are previous episodes of displacement and return of the Rohingya, and other ethnic minorities, in Burma over the last 20 years which do not inspire confidence.

Media reports in mid-January 2018 of progress within the Bangladesh-Burma “Joint Working Group” (JWG) on repatriation, claimed that Bangladesh has submitted a list of 100,000 Rohingya names for vetting representing a first tranche for return. The UNCHR reported in December 2017 that: “The JWG is tasked to ‘develop a specific instrument on the physical arrangement for the repatriation of returnees in a speedy manner.’ UNHCR continues to engage with both governments outlining UNHCR’s established role in voluntary return processes.” It remains unclear whether efforts by the UNHCR – or any other independent agency – to engage have been successful. It is equally unclear whether the 100,000 Rohingya are volunteers or what their interim and/or final destination and legal status will be and what arrangements might be put in place for their safety and security. As it stands, this is a matter of grave concern to us.

Safe migration

It is vital that the fraught boat exodus of May 2015, when packed vessels of desperate Rohingya were stranded at sea by South East Asian countries closing their ports, is not repeated. For refugees taking this route, the risk of being drowned at sea is perhaps matched by the risk of being trafficked into modern slavery.


The commitments made at the World Humanitarian Summit, and within the New York Declaration, are barely a year old but the Rohingya crisis seems to have tested them to destruction already.

In the light of the Burmese Army’s brutal security operation involving rape and other forms of sexual violence, there is a bitter irony in Burma’s specific undertaking, at the 2016 Summit, to support the UN Secretary-General’s initiative “to end all preventable deaths of women and adolescent girls in crisis settings”.

Burma’s actions have imposed human suffering on hundreds of thousands of people and presented the world with a huge bill for humanitarian relief estimated to amount to a billion pounds per year. There is also the chilling prospect of yet another long-term, politically intractable, cross-border displacement where the prospects of it becoming a powder-keg of radicalisation seem very real.

We neither under-estimate the challenge nor mistake our remit. The UK is one player within a complex multilateral environment. Our focus is on the potential to avoid or prevent humanitarian crises. This must be the most effective, efficient and economic use of resources ear-marked for Official Development Assistance (of which humanitarian relief is only one element).

We commend the UK Government’s 5-point plan for the Rohingya and Burma. It strikes the right notes but the conditions needed to underpin each strand appear to be out of reach in the current circumstances.

15 January 2018