Visiting Myanmar in 2019, it was clear that exile was being cemented for the Rohingya community due to continued hostilities, insecurity and diplomatic impotence. Three years later, visiting the camps in Cox’s Bazar this week, the writing on the wall is even clearer: the Rohingya crisis has reached a tipping point, and refugees are fast approaching the point of no return. A new initiative, led by the United Nations, Asean and China, must enable possibilities for safe return without delay.
The one million people who fled violence five years ago did not only lose their land; they lost everything a homeland signifies: culture, identity and memory.
Children born here in “the world’s largest refugee camp” in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh have known no life outside the confines of these barbed wire fences. Refugees who pass away in exile are denied the dignity of being buried with family in their ancestral land. With every year that passes, a community that has witnessed the worst of humanity is being unmade. What the Rohingyas have endured – what they continue to endure – is a loss truly beyond belief.
The young displaced are caught in the crosshairs of uncertainty and desperation. At an age of innovation and imagination, 450,000 children, adolescents and youth are faced with insurmountable barriers to education and opportunities. Expected to contribute to their families but unable to do so, their backs have hit the wall.
According to our latest NRC report, a staggering 95 percent of refugees aged 18-24 years are currently unemployed, and the majority are suffering from high levels of stress and anxiety. In Cox’s Bazar, the threat of a “lost generation” is increasingly a reality.
Despite the heartbreak, the humanitarian response in Cox’s Bazar is not without success. The Bangladeshi authorities, relief agencies and donors have made great strides in overturning the initial deforestation of hills where the refugee camps are situated. Local partnerships are increasingly enabling Bangladeshi aid organizations to have a seat at the table, and connect local communities to humanitarian efforts in the region. Still, a lot more must be done to enable the refugees to inform decisions that shape their lives.
During my visit, I conveyed appreciation to the Bangladesh government for hosting so many refugees. In 2021, the country hosted as many refugees as Norway, Sweden, France and the United Kingdom combined. However, Bangladesh cannot do this alone.
Now is the time for coordinated, courageous action. First, countries in the region must share the responsibility for hosting refugees. In a multi-generational crisis spanning multiple borders, solidarity is in short supply.
Across the Andaman Sea, Rohingya refugees are still being pushed back by Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, and recently many have been pushed across the border to Bangladesh by the Indian government. This cruel race to the bottom must stop. State commitments to protect people forced to flee must be upheld.
Second, diplomacy with Myanmar must be supercharged to find lasting solutions. The Rohingyas have a fundamental right to return to their homeland, and regional leaders, especially the Asean member states and China, must engage to create safe conditions in Myanmar’s Rakhine. A joint UN-Asean-China summit in a neutral third country can jump-start long dormant efforts, before the next regional summit in November.
Lastly, donors who have already invested significant efforts and funding to the response must not turn away now. The crises in Ukraine, Afghanistan and elsewhere have brought unprecedented challenges, but the suffering of one community should not be elevated over the desperation of others. More donors must dig deeper, and conditions must be created for humanitarians to do more with less.
We are running out of time to give the Rohingyas in Bangladesh the future they deserve. This is the eleventh hour, and they are on the precipice of a frightening abyss.
If we ignore them – if we accept this great injustice as normal – future generations will judge us by what we did not say, and what we failed to do now.
(Jan Egeland is the secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, and a former United Nations under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs.)