Dr Champa Patel, Director Asia-Pacific Programme, Chatham House – April 2020

Evidence for International Development Committee - Rohingya


1 and 2. Please could you update us on the general situation in Cox’s Bazar and your primary ongoing concerns for refugees in the camps/ What have been the main challenges for coordinating the humanitarian response in the camps?


March 2020 – almost 860k Rohingya are displaced across Cox’s Bazar, primarily in Kutupalong and Nayapara refugee camp and satellite settlements and camps on a peninsula adjoining the Naf river, which separates Bangladesh and Myanmar.[1] The overall population (including those impacted by earlier waves of displacement) requiring support is 1.2 million people.


Key concerns:



4. Gender based violence, including sexual exploitation and trafficking, appears to be a persistent problem in the camps. Why is this and what is the international community doing to prevent it?


Gender based violence, and sexual exploitation and trafficking, against the Rohingya population has been well documented. This is not just in the camps, but for countless people it occurred during the violence in Myanmar or during displacement itself. With restrictions on livelihoods and free movement, the Rohingya are stuck in close confinement in crowded conditions, which has seen rise in incidences of domestic violence as well. Frequent harassment of adolescent girls is also an issue. In this context, there is also the issue of girls facing early marriage for cultural and economic reasons. There are also increased risks of trafficking, as traffickers promise jobs and other opportunities.

In 2019, UNICEF recorded that 490 girls and 12,386 adult Rohingya refugees (75% of them female) were recorded as having received support on issues related to gender-based violence. UNICEF has set up a 13 Safe Spaces for Women and Girls programs across Cox’s Bazaar, which provide counselling support, vocational training and learning opportunities.[5] Other organisations, such as Action Aid, also provide similar programs.

Within the community, there are also initiatives to support women and girls impacted by these issues. For example, Razia Sultana (originally from Myanmar but raised in Bangladesh) established the Rohingya Women’s Welfare Society, which provides counselling and support for women and girls.

Many of these initiatives provide support and services for women and girls who have become pregnant by rape. However, Covid-19 could have worrying implications for that support if health service providers are redeployed or focused on Covid-19 related responses.[6]

Less documented is sexual violence against men and boys. There has been some analysis of this, for example the Women’s Refugee Commission report, ‘’It’s happening to our men as well’: Sexual violence against Rohingya men and boys’ published in 2018.[7]


What is your latest assessment of the plan to move some of the Rohingya to the island of Bashan Char in the Bay of Bengal? Can this ever be a solution?


There has been a long gestating plan to move approximately 1000 refugees to Bashan Char, an island at the mouth of the Meghna River.[8]


However, critics argue the island only emerged less than 20 years ago and is prone to floods, cyclones and harsh weather conditions. These risks are only likely to increase as the region will see rising sea levels and the continued impacts of climate change and natural disasters. Humanitarian organisations have also been highly critical of the move given the site’s physical isolation and the access challenges it poses. The UN has said relocation should be voluntary and independent assessments should take place before any relocation.


In Feb 2020, the state minister for disaster management and relief indicated that plans may need to be shelved as they have not – according to him – secured international cooperation with the scheme. Without such cooperation, it would be difficult to arrange access to the services needed for refugees relocated to Bashan Char.


However, it is unclear how quickly the government will act on this. Certainly Covid-19 will be pressing on the authorities’ mind and this will take precedence for now.


6. What is being done to repatriate refugees and what are the obstacles?

In Oct 2017 Bangladesh opened formal negotiations with Myanmar on a process for repatriation. The following month, both parties agreed a memorandum of understanding, and set up a Joint Working Group to coordinate repatriation.

However, problematically, UNHCR was not part of the discussions. There was an absence of a ‘neutral’ party that can help advance repatriation, work out the logistical processes and address any unresolved issues while also ensuring the necessary conditions (safe, voluntary, informed) were met.

Two attempts at repatriation failed in Nov 2018 and Aug 2019 – without a single refugee who had been cleared for repatriation agreeing to return. Both sides have reverted to blaming each other for the lack of progress. However, it is understandable that refugees have expressed strong reservations about returning to a situation, which has not materially changed:

Intransigence within Myanmar is both political and cultural. The Rohingya are widely not seen as part of Myanmar and there is strong support for the Burmese authorities’ actions. International pressure has done little to change this equation. More thought should be given to how to best support Bangladesh and engage regional actors, such as India or China to pressure Myanmar to make the changes needed for safe, informed and voluntary return:



[1] For updated UNHCR data, please see: https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/myanmar_refugees 

[2] For further information see: https://stableseas.org/llicit-trades/arms-trafficking-bangladesh

[3] For additional information, see: https://fscluster.org/rohingya_crisis

[4] For detailed information, see: https://hum-insight.info/plan/906

[5] For further information, see: https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/rr-rohingya-refugee-response-gender-analysis-010818-en.pdf

[6] For further information, see: https://reliefweb.int/report/myanmar/guidance-note-gbv-service-provision-during-time-covid-19-myanmar-gbv-sub-sector

[7] Available at: https://www.un.org/sexualviolenceinconflict/wp-content/uploads/report/auto-draft/Rohingya-Report-Final-.pdf

[8] This article provides photos of the new site: https://tbsnews.net/rohingya-crisis/inside-look-bhashan-char-new-home-rohingyas

[9] For example, see: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/09/myanmar-scorched-earth-campaign-fuels-ethnic-cleansing-of-rohingya-from-rakhine-state/

[10] On closure of camps see: https://www.refworld.org/docid/5bb72e0da.html; for further information on IDP situation within Myanmar, see: https://www.internal-displacement.org/countries/myanmar

[11] For example see: https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/rohingya-crisis/2019/11/11/pm-rohingyas-threat-to-national-regional-security

[12] For recent commentary, see: https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-myanmar-rohingya-china-insight/china-struggles-in-new-diplomatic-role-trying-to-return-rohingya-to-myanmar-idUKKBN1ZJ0SD

[13] India’s NRC and Citizenship Amendment Act processes have been deeply controversial. Local Assamese politicians see Bengali citizens as ‘foreigners’ and the issue plays into Modi’s government populist agenda which targets Muslim groups. The issue has created some tension between the two neighbours. For further information see: https://atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/understanding-indias-citizenship-controversy/