5 things you need to know about the Rohingya crisis

February 29, 2020
Photo by Kieran McConville

Outbreaks of violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar, have forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people to flee their homes since August 25, 2017. Hundreds of thousands are still living as refugees, many in neighboring Bangladesh. Here’s what you need to know about the Rohingya crisis in 2020.

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

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

2. After more than two years, the current crisis has become more complex

For more than 2 years, over 1 million Rohingya have been forcibly displaced from their homes. Currently, over 914,000 Rohingya refugees are settled on a narrow strip of hilly land below the city of Cox’s Bazar in neighboring Bangladesh. Nearly 55% of the Rohingya population in Cox’s Bazar are children. 

This mass exodus has developed into a protracted emergency for both refugees and their host communities. Most of the camps that were set up for incoming Rohingya in Bangladesh were built on uneven sandy hills that were rapidly cleared to make way for refugees and services. Over the last two years, these informal settlements have faced the constant threats of flooding, landslides, and shelter collapse. 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. 

The main cyclone season 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.

Now, with advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, there’s a very real fear that the virus could reach the camps in Cox’s Bazar. Given the density of the settlements and vulnerability of the residents, there’s very real potential for catastrophe. Robust hygiene practices promoted by organizations like Concern will be vital to contain any outbreak.

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, 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. Two of the biggest focuses within this are maintaining nutrition and safeguarding against monsoons, cyclones, and other weather-related disasters. 

Rohingya women in Cox's Bazar receiving emergency supplies

A Concern Worldwide distribution of 1,150 dignity kits, supported by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) and UK’s Department for International Development (DfID). Photo: Abir Abdullah/ Concern Worldwide

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 Country Director in Bangladesh, A.K.M. Musha, points out that local lives have changed significantly since this massive population flow. 

Concern Bangladesh Country Director AKM Musha

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 says. “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.

Get more updates from Bangladesh — and beyond

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 two years. Another proposal would see the relocation of as many as 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 and other climate crises. 

“It’s a difficult situation for all.” — A.K.M Musha, Concern Bangladesh Country Director 

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.

Womena and children at nutrition center in Bangladesh

Habib* came with his mother Melina* at Tanjimarkhola OTP center of Concern in Rohingya refugee camp. Habib was identified as severely malnourished during household level screening and received treatment at the OTP center. (*Names changed for security)

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