Why we must listen to Rohingya perspectives

by Sharad Aggarwal | BRAC USA
Sunday, 9 September 2018 10:15 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Rohingya refugees play football at Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazaar, Bangladesh, March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

It is paramount international actors prioritize Rohingya’s participation in their own struggle for peace

Just over a year ago, plumes of smoke billowed into the air over the Naf river that separates Myanmar and Bangladesh. As September wore on, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees fled across the border – eventually totalling around 750,000 people. This population, about the size of Seattle, reported unimaginable atrocities, targeted attacks, and the destruction of their communities.

Earlier this month, in an op-ed for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Manish Agrawal of the International Rescue Committee offered three recommendations for how the international community can support the Rohingya: by improving their current living conditions, increasing aid, and advocating for justice on their behalf.

These steps are undoubtedly necessary, and there is more the international community can do to ensure its responses reflect the Rohingya’s best interests. Given the current limitations the Rohingya face accessing basic human rights, international actors should work harder to elevate their participation in these support efforts.

Their views have already shed valuable insight into the services they most urgently need, where tension with the host community might arise, and what their aspirations entail. Understanding how the Rohingya, as well as the host community, perceive their own needs will be paramount to ensuring their short- and long-term well-being.

Visitors to the settlements in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, often specifically remark on the bustling, informal marketplaces run by the Rohingya. Amid the existing restrictions on their ability to work, their creative, entreprenuerial drive is evident. Despite these advances, a recent report published by BRAC, Harvard and Amnesty International found that 80 percent of the Rohingya reported their families have no income. It is clear that livelihoods, as Agrawal suggested, is one issue of grave concern.

One in three Rohingya were in debt when this survey was conducted and, without access to formal financial institutions, they were predominantly borrowing from family and friends. Although these loans tend to be around $120 dollars, mounting conflict may arise if borrowers are unable to earn money to repay their debtors. Integrating the Rohingya into the labor force, as the report states, could have a positive economic impact on Bangladesh and address some of the long-term challenges arising from their displacement.

To the extent possible, many aid groups, BRAC included, have incorporated the Rohingya into response efforts, in addition to conducting rapid needs assessments. For example, working with Rohingya volunteers to address gender dynamics, sexual and reproductive health issues, and other gender-sensitive topics has helped provide cohesion in their new setting.

Rohingya communities now have a high ratio of female-headed households, and we need urgently to address cultural dynamics that limit a woman’s ability to work. Incorporating Rohingya volunteers into this process will insure these programs are community-driven, culturally appropriate, and adapted for the unique challenges that Rohingya women face.

As we have seen around the world, failing to adequately address the needs of the community hosting a refugee population can cause conflict, violence, and long-term challenges. Incorporating host community members in our response and research has provided valuable insight into issues they uniquely face.

Namely, we found that the host community is also living in extreme poverty, with markedly low access to healthcare, education, and livelihood opportunities. In addition, likely as a result of international actors ramping up health services in the settlements, the Rohingya report having easier access to healthcare than those already living in the region.

Some of these discrepancies have the potential to pose problems in the coming months if aid organizations continue to provide disproportionate healthcare, or other services, to one population over the other. BRAC and others are scaling up services for the host community, including health and education, but there is more to be done. More broadly, this crisis is an opportunity for global north actors to learn from the global south how to best address issues the region has been combatting for years.

Incorporporating refugees into response efforts is always at top of mind for international actors contributing to humanitarian efforts, but actually enacting this approach is much more challenging. A report published by the ALNAP, a global network or researchers and other emergency response providers, highlights this disparity in humanitarian efforts: “The weakest progress and performance [is] in the areas of recipient consultation and engagement of local actors, despite the rhetorical emphasis given to these issues.”

Placing the Rohingya at the center of response efforts will make programming more effective and also ensure advocacy efforts reflect their interests.

It is paramount international actors prioritize Rohingya’s participation in their own struggle for peace.

Sharad Aggarwal is the vice president of BRAC USA.