Blog post by Parkhi Saxena, a law student at Nirma University, India.
Since 2013, the numbers of documented and undocumented Rohingya refugees living in the Cox’s Bazaar, Bandarban and its adjacent areas has increased from around half a million to over a million. In makeshift shelters made from bamboo and tarpaulin and in camps sprawling through rough terrains, the refugees live in conditions of overcrowding, poor sanitation and high malnutrition. Most of the refugees reside in Ukhiya and Teknaf Upazilas in 34 extremely congested camps, including the largest single-site, the Kutupalong-Balukhali Expansion Site, where there are approximately 626,500 Rohingyas.
The first case of COVID-19 in the Cox’s Bazaar area raised an alarm in the Bangladesh government. As of July 4, five Rohingyas had died of COVID-19, about one-seventh of deaths in surrounding communities. The area, which is already replete with multiple concerns inter alia sanitation, hygiene, drinking water and malnutrition, recorded 3019 confirmed cases up till July 17 in Cox’s Bazaar Area.
If we concern ourselves with the bigger picture, Bangladesh in itself is faced by plethora of issues, of which the Rohingya refugee crisis is just one. Bangladesh is one of the lowest ranking countries in terms of health care, education, and infrastructure, etc. In such a scenario, a pandemic may weaken a developing country like Bangladesh on almost all fronts. However, for the Rohingya community, who already persecuted, stateless, and forced to live in camps, a pandemic of the likes of COVID-19 might have unfathomable consequences.
In this blog post, I will deliberate upon developing some effective mechanisms for economic inclusion of Rohingya refugees in the light of the contemporary challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic through an interdisciplinary and multidimensional approach. This unprecedented time can be transformed into a unique prospect for economic and subsequent social integration of the Rohingya refugees in the society. But it will require supportive and empathic collaborative willpower.
Possible challenges in the way for economic and social inclusion
The aim of incorporating the Rohingyas into Bangladeshi society requires the building of mutual trust and empathy. The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the partial lockdown, the disease intensity, weak governance in the healthcare system, insufficient medical facilities, unawareness, and the sharing of misinformation in the mass media has led to people experiencing fear and anxiety. In addition to these are the financial insecurities in the agricultural, tourism, hospitality and ready-made garment industries which has created a huge dent in the Bangladesh economy.
Apart from these contemporary challenges, lies another challenge which is altering the perception of the common Bangladeshi citizen who views the refugee community as a burden on the already fragile and overpopulated infrastructure. The pandemic has also exacerbated resentment in the densely populated country toward the Rohingya refugees, and brought further uncertainty to their chances of repatriation. The Cox’s Bazaar area is already replete with several communicable diseases, and there is a high possibility that the locals might scapegoat the Rohingya refugees by treating them as spreaders of the virus.
Before inculcating the sense of belonging in the refugee community, the aim of the stakeholders must be to create a favourable environment to work, engage and participate in the domestic affairs of the country. Efforts ought to be made to remove the very notion of inequality and insufficiency from the mind-set of both the Rohingya refugee community and the Bangladeshi citizens. The predisposed thought process which makes them consider as a burden or a liability must be removed.
Paving the way for integration in the society
The utmost priority of the Bangladesh Government in the current times must be to break the chain of COVID-19 transmission of cases in the camp settlements. The figures of reported cases are under control presently but the apprehensions of community transfer still looms over the Cox’s Bazaar area which is the world’s largest refugee camp cluster. The World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and local NGOs in collaboration with the Health Ministry of Bangladesh are creating awareness for the necessity of social distancing, maintaining proper hygiene and isolation guidelines. These safety measures will aid the government in ensuring that there is no scapegoating of Rohingya refugees as vectors of the pandemic.
Other endeavours must be directed towards removing the mental obstacles which has crept in the minds of Bangladeshi citizens through biased ideologies propagated by the exclusionist to fulfil their own selfish agendas. Subsequently, efforts must be made concerning generation of employment opportunities, promoting skill development and providing basic elementary education, thus gradually building the framework for social inclusion.
This ought to be followed by the long-term efforts towards the emancipation of large scale of outbreaks of communicable diseases in the camp settlements to remove any apprehension regarding the refugees, who in the past, had been considered as vectors for communicable diseases. According to the Bangladesh Finance Minister, the allocation for the health services and health education has been increased, keeping in mind that part of the fund will be spent on dealing with the pandemic. In the past, major public health threats have occurred in the likes of diphtheria, cholera and HIV AIDS in these camps resulting in a huge loss of lives.
Once the footing of sound health gets cemented, the emphasis must be directed towards providing the means to achieve the basic necessities for a dignified human life (i.e. food, clothing and shelter). The COVID-19 pandemic can be the vital turning point towards initiating inclusive financing for the more disadvantaged communities, including the Rohingyas. Before the pandemic, Rohingya refugees worked in jobs generated inside the camps by the UNHCR and its related organizations with a small income to support their family’s health and wellbeing. This mechanism may be transformed in the approach to include the refugees in bettering the conditions of their own accommodations, providing means for community farming and promoting skill development. For community farming, support may also be taken through the World Food Program which earlier had distributed food and cash to 125,000 people in Ukhiya and Teknaf.
Requisite importance may be dedicated towards skill training to make them capable for providing assistance in the matters of urgency. Selected refugees may be trained in stitching and sewing for production of masks for the refugee community, protective gears and face shields for the front-line health workers. This could be undertaken in collaboration with Health Organization’s Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN) and Bangladesh Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW).
All these endeavours in the direction of promoting inclusivity and integration into the society requires supportive and empathic collaborative effort by all the partakers in the society. It would be a challenging task for the government alone without the required cooperation from the society and private sectors. Companies are legal entities in the eyes of law and hence are equal contributors towards inclusive growth of all the members of the community. Industries in Bangladesh are involved in community development work in the form of charity without having any definite policy regarding the expenses. In many countries, including India, the companies contribute for charity through funds specifically allocated for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). However, for their Bangladesh counterparts, there are only guidelines for CSR provided by United Nations Global Compact, OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and International Labour Organizations. The Bangladesh government must introduce mandatory provisions for CSR contributions in their 1994 Companies Act, a significant portion of which must be directed towards a fund particularly apportioned for Rohingya refugee welfare. The companies may be given the liberty to direct their CSR funds towards generating employment for Rohingyas in their own establishments or factories, launching awareness campaigns for menstrual hygiene of women, supporting the organizations working for refugee children’s education amongst others. Such companies must be incentivized by the government for their contributions which may propel many other private sector entities to release funds for this cause.
This blog post explored the possibilities of the potential inclusion of the Rohingya refugee community in the economic spheres of Bangladesh. These prospects need to be viewed with a sense of urgency as the aim must be to make the optimum utilization of the pandemic situation. Once the groundwork for their inclusion in the economic growth of the country is ensured, it will create a sense of belonging in the refugee community. It will also ensure that the Rohingya refugee community ceases to view themselves as a burden on the society. The inherent longing of becoming the part of the social structure of the society will inspire them to attain a social status. But these changes cannot be introduced in isolation. It requires the efforts of all the stakeholders of the society who are willing and equipped to work in partnership. What is needed is the determination to create an inclusive world where all human beings, irrespective of their circumstances, undergo economic, social and mental growth.
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