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Bangladesh: Aid cuts stoke fear of violence in refugee camps

March 9, 2023

The UN has recently cut food aid to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Observers fear that this will lead to severe health problems and increased crime. They say refugees must be allowed to work.

Rohingya kids behind a barbed-wired fence at a camp in Bangladesh
Rohingya children in Bangladesh are not allowed to learn BengaliImage: Arafatul Islam/DW

There are about 1 million members of the primarily Muslim Rohingya community living in squalid refugee camps in Cox's Bazar on the southeastern coast of Bangladesh.

Many fled the 2017 military clampdown in neighboring Myanmar, which led to one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.

Though Bangladesh agreed to host the Rohingya, it is largely international aid organizations that have paid the bills.

But recently the World Food Programme (WFP) announced that it would have to cut aid because of a $125 million (€117 million) shortfall. The UN organization said that, starting in March, monthly food vouchers would be reduced from $12 to $10 per person. It also warned that there would probably be more cuts if more funds did not come in imminently.

Food aid was 'never enough'

Given that malnutrition, anemia and stunted growth are already rife in the camps, where 65% of the population are children and women, people who work with refugees fear that the cuts in rations could have a devastating impact.

Ambia Perveen, a co-founder of the Rohingya Medics Organisation, which provides medical care in the refugee camps, told DW that the cuts would affect every Rohingya refugee in Bangladesh.

"The food they were provided before was never enough, and now it will affect more, especially children, elderly people, pregnant women and above all the people with chronic diseases," she said. "There is huge malnutrition among children under five years old, severe cases of hepatitis C and anemic pregnant women." 

Massive fire breaks out in Cox's Bazar

Bangladesh cannot cope alone

Mohammad Mizanur Rahman, Bangladesh's refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, told DW that the government could not meet the budget gap and urged international donors to keep up their support.

"It's not possible for Bangladesh to carry the burden of hosting the community alone," he said. "The international community has been playing a vital role in managing them. It shouldn't reduce its support and shift its focus to somewhere else."

Fears of increase in violence

The cuts to food aid come as there has been an increase in violence in the refugee camps, and observers fear that security will be further destabilized. There have been scores of deadly drug-related clashes in recent months, and numerous community leaders have been murdered. Law enforcement agencies are investigating a series of organized killings.

Tensions have also risen along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border because of a rise in illegal activity, such as drug and weapon smuggling.

 A group of Rohingya kids play football in a refugee camp in Bangladesh
The children at Cox's Bazar have a bleak future aheadImage: Arafatul Islam/DW

Rezaur Rahman Lenin, a Rohingya researcher based in Cox's Bazar, told DW that the Bangladeshi authorities must immediately increase security and improve management in the camps.

"Given that Myanmar's government won't let its people go home and that Rohingya refugees in camps are becoming more vulnerable, it is shocking that the UN is willing to cut these essential humanitarian funds," he said. 

"At least 25 people have been killed in the past five months in the camps, many of whom were Rohingya community leaders," he added. "The people killed were chosen because they supported the rights, security and welfare of the Rohingya people and the return of refugees. It has also been asserted that many of them were killed for helping the police stop criminal activity."

Jasmin Lorch, from the Hamburg-based GIGA Institute for Asian Studies, told DW that the cuts would exacerbate tensions in the overcrowded camps.

"While there is no one-to-one relationship between deprivation and crime, increasing hunger and frustration may lead more people to become involved in drug trafficking to secure their livelihood," she said. "Deprivation, enhanced frustration and the feeling of being left alone may also fuel the consumption of drugs."

German deputies advocate work and education

Following a visit to the country in February, the German-South Asian parliamentary group recommended that, in the wake of cuts, Bangladesh should allow aid-dependent Rohingya Muslims living in camps to work. The group also recommended that children be granted better access to education.

"Refugees have to have a chance to develop themselves," Renate Kunast, the head of the Bundestag group, told reporters in Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka.

"The Rohingya children should get an education, and the adult refugees should be able to earn so that they can pay for their essentials," Kunast said.

"Allowing the Rohingya refugees access to jobs and education would be highly beneficial," Lorch said, pointing out that there had been other similar diplomatic initiatives. She added that this would not only allow them to improve their livelihood but would give them prospects in Bangladesh.

Three Rohingya kids play behind a barbed-wired fence
Sixty-five percent of the population of the camps is made up of women and childrenImage: Arafatul Islam/DW

'Repatriation is only solution'

Lorch said Bangladesh's government was not likely to implement such proposals as its ultimate aim is that the refugees leave.

"But a safe return of the Rohingya to Myanmar seems impossible in the foreseeable future, especially since the February 2021 military coup," she said.

"The Bangladesh government's priority has never been integration," Mohammad Mizanur Rahman confirmed. "It has always been repatriation. Repatriation is the only solution to the problem."

He said most of the Rohingya in Bangladesh could only work as farmers or fishermen but that there were enough of these already and that there might be social unrest in the wider population if the refugees were allowed to work.

He added that Rohingya children did have "access to education in the camps." However, the makeshift schools there are not allowed to teach the Bangladeshi curriculum or the main language of Bangladesh, Bengali. They are bound to following Myanmar's curriculum. The idea is that the children will eventually leave Bangladesh.

Most Rohingya in Bangladesh do not have refugee status, which would provide them more protection.

Edited by: Anne Thomas


DW Arafatul Islam Multimedia Journalist
Arafatul Islam Multimedia journalist focusing on Bangladeshi politics, human rights and migration.@arafatul