The Rohingya crisis, explained: 5 Things you need to know

January 5, 2021
Photo by Paddy Dowling / DEC

Here’s what you need to know about the Rohingya crisis in 2021.

Since August 25, 2017, the latest outbreak of violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar, has forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people to flee their homes. Over 1 million Rohingya have been forcibly displaced. More than 914,000 are currently settled on a narrow strip of hilly land below the city of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Over half of the Rohingya refugees living in Cox’s Bazar are children.  

In 2021, this humanitarian emergency will enter its fifth year, with the global pandemic further complicating an already-complex situation. Here are 5 things to know about the Rohingya crisis in 2021. 

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1. This isn’t an isolated crisis for the Rohingya

The Rohingya are a predominantly minority ethnic group, many of whom have lived in Myanar’s Rakhine State for generations. Over time, many families migrated to Rakhine from Bengal, an area encompassing parts of India and all of Bangladesh.  

Without recognition as citizens or permanent residents of the country, the Rohingya have limited access to education, jobs, and health services, resulting in chronic poverty and marginalization. Violence targeting the Rohingya in Myanmar over the last several decades has driven hundreds of thousands to neighboring countries, most notably in 1978, 1991-92, and 2016. Some return, many have lived for decades in areas like Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. 

An escalation in violence that began on August 25, 2017, however, became the starting point for the latest — and largest — crisis. 

2. Other factors are making the crisis complex for both refugees and host communities

The Rohingya crisis has developed into a protracted emergency for both the Rohingya and Bangladeshis. Most of the camps that were set up for incoming Rohingya around Cox’s Bazar were built on uneven sandy hills that were rapidly cleared in response to the 2017 mass exodus. Since then, these informal settlements have faced the constant threats of flooding and landslides. All shelters are required to be built from bamboo and tarps, meaning that concrete and bricks can’t be used as added protection against the elements. Many have collapsed, leaving residents exposed to the elements. 

Bangladesh’s main cyclone season begins in April, making this a time where Rohingya are most vulnerable. Beyond shelters facing destruction from high winds, these rainy seasons can also foster waterborne illnesses in crowded camps that don’t have proper water and sanitation facilities. This poses an especially risk to children and the elderly. 

Concern Worldwide National Volunteer, Yesmin orienting Mahir* a community member on use of protective mask as safety shield from COVID-19 (Photo: AKM Jakaria / Concern Worldwide)
*name changed to protect the identity of individual

The realities of COVID-19 have further complicated matters. Early lockdowns in Bangladesh meant that most local camp volunteers were forced to stay at home, leaving the camps with a reduced number of staff and resources. By May of 2020, the novel coronavirus had reached the refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar. According to the most recent data from October 2020, there were 366 confirmed cases and 9 deaths within the camps. An additional 4,871 cases and 71 deaths were confirmed in the city of Cox’s Bazar. 

The main cyclone season in Bangladesh begins in April, and previous years have shown us that this is one time in which the Rohingya are most vulnerable. Beyond shelters facing destruction from high winds, these rainy seasons can also foster waterborne illnesses in crowded camps that don’t have proper water and sanitation facilities — posing a particular risk to children and the elderly.

3. Over 100 organizations are responding to various Rohingya needs…

Concern is one the many non-governmental organizations — both local and international — responding to the influx of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Because we have been in Bangladesh for over 40 years, had former staff members in the area, and had worked on previous projects there (including with Rohingya refugees as early as 1991), we were one of the first organizations to respond to the crisis. 

Since then, we’ve maintained a combination of life-saving integrated nutrition support, livelihood development, disaster risk reduction, non-food item distributions, and home gardening initiatives. Our goal, along with many of our partners and humanitarian colleagues, is to help the Rohingya stay healthy, care for their families, and live with as much security and dignity as possible. Three of our biggest focuses are nutrition, and safeguarding against weather-related disasters, and responding to COVID-19. 

4. …as well as Bangladeshi needs

Often underreported in coverage of any refugee crisis is the host community’s efforts to maintain their own dignity and health in such difficult circumstances. The area surrounding Cox’s Bazar had already experienced weak service provision and is a very poor area of Bangladesh. Concern’s former Country Director in Bangladesh, A.K.M. Musha, pointed out that local lives have changed significantly since this massive population flow. 

Concern Bangladesh Country Director AKM Musha

Former Concern Bangladesh Country Director A.K.M. Musha (center). Photo: Kieran McConville / Concern Worldwide

“There is huge socio-economic and environmental pressure resulting in increased tension between refugees and the host community,” he said. “The tensions will continue to increase unless the host communities are supported well. It’s a difficult situation for all.”

While the Bangladeshi government has gone to great lengths to accommodate the influx, the impact is being felt. As local resources go into the relief effort, prices of goods and services are driven up, and labor becomes cheaper.

5. There’s no end in sight

“The Rohingya people don’t believe the situation in Myanmar is currently conducive to repatriation. It would be very difficult for people to go back to Myanmar unless the situation improves there,” adds Musha.

International talks over the return of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar have taken place over the last three years. A proposal to relocate an estimated 100,000 Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar to the island of Bhasan Char (which, like much of Bangladesh, is especially vulnerable to rising sea levels) went into effect in December 2020. So far, 1,600 people have been relocated. 

Khaleda*, a new arrival at Moynadhona refugee camp for Rohingya in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

Khaleda*, a new arrival at Moynadhona refugee camp for Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Kieran McConville *Name changed for security

Concern’s Response to the Rohingya Crisis

Concern is working with both the Rohingya and the host communities to help address the immediate needs of the current refugee crisis. With the Rohingya, we work with refugees in 5 camps and we will also be extending livelihood support to the host community.

In 2019 alone, our work included: 

  • Treating over 4,000 Rohingya for malnutrition, including 2,853 children under the age of 5
  • Monthly nutritional screenings of over 45,000 children 
  • Providing food rations, cooking demonstrations, and health education to over 9,800 caregivers
  • Group messaging on infant and young child feeding and hygiene for over 5,000 pregnant and lactating women and caregivers
  • Nearly 400 cooking demonstrations attended by over 12,000 participants
  • Over 2,100 families provided seeds and fertilizer support for home gardening
  • Forming 27 livelihood groups for 750 program participants
  • Cash grants provided to 750 families, as well as relevant training for building livelihoods
  • Constructing roads, drainage lines, slope protections, walls, and culverts to improve disaster preparedness 

Our COVID-19 response in Cox’s Bazar began with the initial lockdowns in Bangladesh. We ensured that the Rohingya refugees we support in Cox’s Bazar had a 1 month’s supply of food, and worked with both the camp and surrounding communities to educate people on prevention and detection techniques. We also partnered with local religious leaders, who shared the messages via their microphones during prayer times. Subsequently, Concern introduced a mobile testing and referral service for those who may have been exposed to the virus. That service is available to both refugees and local residents.


Rohingya Crisis Explained