Bangladesh and Burma: the Rohingya crisis Contents

3Empowering affected people

World Humanitarian Summit Communique: Empower affected people to drive their own response to crises; in particular strengthen the voice, choice, and control of crisis-affected women and girls, children and youth, older people, and people with disabilities.

New York Declaration: Protect the human rights of all refugees and migrants, regardless of status. This includes the rights of women and girls and promoting their full, equal and meaningful participation in finding solutions.

Immediate welcome

39.Bangladesh, under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, opened its borders to over 655,500 Rohingya refugees, the only country in the region to do so. Sheikh Hasina is on record explaining the parallels with her own nation’s violent genesis in 1971, when what was then East Pakistan seceded to form Bangladesh: “What the Pakistani military did with us, with our people, was the same thing,” Ms. Hasina said to the media. In her telling, this traumatic history places a responsibility on Bangladesh to help the persecuted. “We know what suffering means” she said.74 In total, Bangladesh has now accommodated over a million Rohingya refugees. The country deserves both recognition and material support in line with the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants and the World Humanitarian Summit’s recognition that hosting displaced people is a “global public good”.75

40.The Bangladesh Deputy High Commissioner, Mr Khondker M Talha, told us that Bangladesh’s main aim was to secure the return of the Rohingyas to what had been their homeland “for centuries” and to reach a permanent solution to the problem which had been ongoing since 1978. He was clear, however, that the immediate challenge was providing these traumatised people with shelter, medication, treatment and other appropriate assistance — “a gigantic task”.76 The local Bangladesh communities across the border from Rakhine State had welcomed the Rohingyas and had “extended their hospitality”.77

Refugee status

41.However, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) highlighted that the decision of the Bangladesh Government not to recognise newly displaced Rohingya formally as refugees78 limits their rights under International Refugee Law and therefore constrains their practical options in “driving their own response”. This includes limiting their ability to seek third country resettlement and posing a major barrier to local integration. The IRC argued that, without refugee status in Bangladesh, nor citizenship in Burma, displaced Rohingya are faced with only two options: to stay in camps in Bangladesh in dire conditions, or return to Burma with uncertain, but currently very limited, protections. This is distinctly at odds with the World Humanitarian Summit’s reaffirmation of asylum, eschewing of “refoulement”79 and commitment to relieve the pressure on host countries by “expanding means of resettlement and admission for refugees” (albeit, with reference to the “overarching goal” being “voluntary return to the places of origin”).80 In the light of this, therefore, viable alternatives need to be found to improve the situation facing the Rohingya.81

42.DFID recognises that longer-term dependency on humanitarian assistance will be wholly determined by the policies adopted by the Government of Bangladesh towards the Rohingya, the willingness of donors to invest in longer-term strategies to support self-reliance and, presumably, whether such policies and investment can be woven into a coherent strategy that the Rohingya themselves engage with. Currently the Bangladesh Government restricts the Rohingya refugees’ ability to work.82 Lord Ahmad, Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, stressed the need for Bangladesh to recognise the Rohingya formally, as refugees when he met Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, on 6 October 2017.83 Once again, both the World Humanitarian Summit Communique and the New York Declaration, have something to say on an aspect of the Rohingya crisis, with the former committing to “matching lifesaving assistance with longer-term support for livelihoods” and the latter to strengthening the positive contributions made by migrants to economic development in their host countries.84

Recognition of engaging refugees in their future

43.Both the World Humanitarian Summit Communique, and New York Declaration, committed the international community to engaging refugees and displaced people in the development of plans for the immediate situation and the longer-term strategy for their own future.

44.We asked how much the local Rohingya were being included in the response and its planning and were told by DFID:

A coherent Rohingya leadership in the camps is not evident, but there is every attempt being made by the various agencies, including the Inter Sector Coordination Group and the different cluster agencies, to ensure that they are consulting with community members. But we do think this is an issue.85

It is reported that that camps are currently using the “Mahzi” system—which refers to an elected leader in the community who represents up to 200 families. This individual, almost exclusively male, is tasked with checking in with community members and taking their feedback to the Bangladesh army or to an NGO86.

45.However between 60 and 70 per cent. of Rohingya refugees are female, ActionAid highlighted the role of women and girls as they faced the triple injustice of being disproportionately affected by disaster, marginalised in relief efforts, and lacking representation in key decision-making and leadership roles. ActionAid wrote:

Women are on the frontline of humanitarian responses, taking risks, providing unpaid care and essential work, and so provide invaluable contributions and leadership to response.87

In pragmatic terms, evidence from the IRC on the large proportion of female-led households within the refugee population suggests that appropriate action is needed to engage with Rohingya women and girls if consultation with the affected people is to be effective. Our evidence was that DFID’s past leadership on empowering women and girls in conflict (e.g. Call to Action on Protecting Girls and Women in Emergencies in 2013) was commendable. Our witnesses expressed the hope that DFID could now put these commitments into practice with the Rohingya women and girls by making them equal participants in discussions and planning. ActionAid recommended that DFID should maintain an active presence at Sector Coordination meetings in Cox’s Bazar to oversee that this is implemented.88

46.It is not surprising that Rohingya leadership structures are not yet evident in the camps given the degree of disruption to effective means of community communications, let alone societal norms, that has occurred and the casualties the population has sustained. We urge DFID, and other organisations active and trusted amongst the refugees, to think creatively and sympathetically about how to encourage peaceful and forward-looking leadership structures, including women, to emerge from the chaos so that Rohingya voices can be heard.

76 Q49

77 Q50

78 Bangladesh only recognises 33,000 of the estimated 1 million Rohingya in Bangladesh as refugees. They arrived in Bangladesh from the previous wave of violence. Bangladesh is also not a signatory to the

79 Refoulment: the forcible return of refugees or asylum seekers to a country where they are liable to be subjected to persecution

80 Op. cit., Third commitment.

81 International Rescue Committee (DBB019) (

82 Department for International Development (DBB016) pg 7

84 Ibid

85 Q100

87 ActionAid UK (DBB08) para 13

88 Ibid

15 January 2018