30 May 2023: The Guardian
Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are at risk of becoming “the new Palestinians”, according to a UN head, who said they are trapped in a protracted and increasingly neglected crisis.
Olivier De Schutter, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said the almost 1 million people living in overcrowded camps in Cox’s Bazar should be given the right to work in their host country of Bangladesh, and that forcing them to rely on dwindling international support was not sustainable.
De Schutter, who spoke to the Guardian after a recent visit to Cox’s Bazar, said conditions were “absolutely terrible”, and that he had rarely spoken to people in “such a state of desperation”.
The refugees – most of whom fled brutal crackdowns by the Myanmar military in 2017 – are fenced off from the local community and live in squalid and cramped shelters. The violence against Rohingya provoked international outrage more than five years ago and led to a genocide case at the UN’s top court, but international donors are now increasingly distracted by crises elsewhere, said De Shutter.
The World Food Programme recently announced it was forced to cut Rohingya refugees’ food allowance to just $8 (£6.50) a month per person, due to a lack of funding.
“If you combine this with the high food-price inflation in recent months, it means that in comparison to the start of the year, the calorie intake and the quality of nutrition for the refugees will degrade significantly. The rate of under-nutrition and malnutrition for children will grow significantly and stunting will continue,” De Schutter said.
“But worst of all is the fact that these people depend entirely on humanitarian support.… They are prohibited from working. They are completely stuck,” he said.
“People spend their days in complete idleness. As a result, gender-based violence is mounting. Security in the camps is very problematic, with armed gangs controlling drug trafficking across the border of Myanmar, leading to exchange of fire of gangs in the evening,” he said.
“It’s extremely worrying, and the state of desperation of the families should not be underestimated.”
People also face the continual threat of extreme weather events – a danger made worse by rules that ban them from building concrete structures, leaving them in bamboo and tarpaulin shelters. “These camps are in a very vulnerable situation,” said De Schutter.
De Schutter said the Bangladesh government’s fear that allowing people to work will encourage Rohingya to stay longer in the country, burdening public services and reducing job opportunities for others, was misplaced. “If they can work, they can pay taxes, they can start small businesses that can create employment opportunities for others,” he said, adding that people had a right to livelihoods.
The Bangladesh government has criticised the international community for failing to press the Myanmar junta to let Rohingya return safely to their homeland, and has pointed to the lack of international funding to support refugees it has hosted.
“Myanmar should be held accountable for creating the conditions that will allow safe repatriation under the right conditions. For the moment, no one believes that these conditions are met,” said De Schutter.
The crisis had fallen below the radar, he said, adding that greater international attention was needed. “Otherwise, these people, in 10 years’ time, they will be the new Palestinians.”