OPINION: World needs to step up support for the Rohingya

DHAKA (The Daily Star/ANN) - All the Rohingya want is dignity. They fled violence in Myanmar with nothing.

What I saw on my first visit to Bangla-desh, as the vice president of the World Bank's South Asia Region, was a human tragedy as far as the eye could see. Lines after lines of shelters—made of plastic sheets and bamboos—stretched over the deforested hills of the Rohingya camps in Cox's Bazar. 

Amid the tragedy, though, I saw hope. There was the resilience of the Rohingya people and the generosity of the people of Bangladesh. All the Rohingya want is dignity. They fled violence in Myanmar with nothing. The local Bangladeshi people—many of them are poor—welcomed them and gave them shelter and food. I am deeply touched by their kindness. 

The needs of the Rohingya, though, are huge. So are those of the host community. The world must, therefore, step up its support for the Rohingya and Bangladeshi people and pursue a long-term solution for their needs.

Last week, I met with Rohingya women, men and children at the camps in Cox's Bazar, including the Kutupalong camp that is the world's largest and most congested refugee camp. The scale of the influx is enormous. Within the last year, more than 725,000 Rohingya, mostly women and children, took shelter in the narrow peninsula in Cox's Bazar district, which is among the poorest districts in Bangladesh. The Rohingya have fled Myanmar regularly since the 1970s, and the recent influx has pushed the total number to about one million, which is more than the population of Bhutan. The flow has not stopped. The number of Rohingya in Teknaf and Ukhia Upazilas in Cox's Bazar is about three times more than the local population.

The government and people of Bangladesh have shown great generosity. Despite its own development challenges, Bangladesh opened its border for the Rohingya and saved thousands of lives. The government continues to deliver much-needed basic assistance and to coordinate effectively with various humanitarian agencies, development partners, and local and international non-governmental organisations. So far, this has helped prevent major disease outbreaks and natural disasters.

But the challenge is enormous. The Rohingya population has massive needs for basic services, placing immense pressure on already strained local services. The influx has hugely burdened infrastructure and services as well as water resources and the environment. The camps now cover an area that was once an elephant corridor. The amount of forest cleared every day equals the size of four football fields. Before entering Bangladesh, only 10 percent of Rohingya children had been immunised. Many of them suffer from malnutrition. The women are at risk of gender-based violence.

The host community has been equally affected. The local economy suffered as wages dropped and prices rose. In the first months, local children could not go to schools as they were used as relief centres; health facilities struggled to cope with the large number of people. Even before the influx, Cox's Bazar had a higher poverty rate and was below the national average in education and health indicators. The influx has made things worse.

The World Bank is committed to standing by Bangladesh in this crisis. We are helping address the needs of both the displaced Rohingya people until they can safely and voluntarily return home and the host communities in the areas where the government would find most value added for our financing.

On an exceptional basis, the World Bank has mobilised nearly half a billion dollars on grant terms. Since June, the World Bank has approved the first two financings totalling USD 75 million: a USD 50 million grant to help the Rohingya receive much-needed health services, and a USD 25 million grant to help Rohingya children access learning opportunities. We are preparing another project to help build disaster preparedness and social resilience.

We shall follow a phased approach to complement the humanitarian support as well as benefit the host population through existing or new projects. An example of a new project is the recently approved USD 175 million Sustainable Forests and Livelihoods Project. It includes help for the host communities in Cox's Bazar by providing alternative income generation activities, improving the availability of wood for fuel in a sustainable way, and reducing human-wild elephant conflict.

Bangladesh has shown leadership in providing for the one million Rohingya people. But they are also the world's responsibility. Bangladesh requires sustained global support to meet the enormous challenge. The global community cannot afford to become distracted from this crisis.

When I was in the Kutupalong mega camp, I became quite emotional when I held a newborn baby who arrived in the world just 10 minutes before at a health centre. I truly wish the baby girl will have a healthy, prosperous, and peaceful life wherever her journey of life takes her. The world cannot and should not fail the baby girl or the Rohingya people.

(Hartwig Schafer is Vice President for the South Asia Region of the World Bank.)

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