Bangladesh: Food cuts stoke violence fears in Rohingya camps
The UN has recently cut food aid to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Observers fear this will lead to severe health problems, and also increased crime. They say refugees must be allowed to work
There are around 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 crackdown in neighboring Myanmar, which led to one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.
While 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 due to 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, experts fear that the cuts in rations could have a devastating impact.
Ambia Perveen, a co-founder of the Rohingya Medics Organization, 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."
Bangladesh cannot cope alone
Mohammad Mizanur Rahman, the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) of Bangladesh, said his 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 told DW. "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.
Rezaur Rahman Lenin, a Rohingya researcher based in Cox's Bazar, said 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 told DW.
"At least 25 people have been killed in the past five months in the camps, many of whom were Rohingya community leaders," he explained. "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, agreed 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 told DW. "Deprivation, enhanced frustration, and the feeling of being left alone may also fuel the consumption of drugs."
German parliamentary group advocates work and education
A German parliamentary group recently suggested that in the wake of cuts, Bangladesh should allow aid-dependent Rohingya Muslims living in camps to work. It also said that children should have better access to education.
"Refugees have to have a chance to develop themselves," Renate Kunast, the head of the German-South Asian parliamentary group that visited Bangladesh in February, told reporters in the 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," she added.
"Allowing the Rohingya refugees access to jobs and education would be highly beneficial, agreed Lorch from GIGA, 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.
'Repatriation is only solution'
However, Lorch explained that the Bangladeshi government was not likely to implement such proposals as its ultimate aim was that the refugees should 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 to DW. "It has always been repatriation. Repatriation is the only solution to the problem."
He said that most of the Rohingya in Bangladesh could only work as farmers or fishermen but that there were enough of these already and that if the refugees were allowed to work, there might be social unrest amid the wider population.
He also pointed out 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.