Rohingya refugees who fled egregious atrocities in their home country of Myanmar, now living in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, face an immediate and extreme existential crisis — the global humanitarian system led by the United Nations and the World Food Programme (WFP) has let down these one million refugees.
From 1 March 2023, the food allotment provided to the Rohingya refugees has decreased by 17%, from $12 to $10 per person per month.
While it may seem like a meagre sum, only 30 cents per day, this amount falls far short of the amount needed to purchase food in times of drastic food inflation in recent months. Take, for example, cooking oil, flour and eggs, which have seen price hikes ranging from 35% to 80%. The WFP says that a lack of funds and rising food and transportation costs have "forced" these cuts.
Historically, states commonly make entry of refugees conditional on encampment because it allegedly assists in maintaining security and stability. A 2004 report by Médecins Sans Frontières titled "The Migration Machine and the Paradox of Refugee Health" described refugee camps as "open-air prisons." These prison-like conditions lead not just to higher rates of malnutrition, but perhaps more importantly, human trafficking, prostitution and other illegal activities.
The social structure within the camps is resilient but when this much stress is put on those who are working to maintain cohesion, community and hope, it is almost inevitable that the situation will degenerate. It will cause more pressure within the camps and more tensions between the host and refugee communities.
Dom Scalpelli, the WFP country director in Bangladesh, stated that "45% of Rohingya families are not eating a sufficient diet and malnutrition has been widespread in the camps" testing the social order in the camps. Essentially, this most recent cut in food allocations will make already compromised conditions truly unbearable.
Refugee camp sources fear the WFP's decision, close to Ramadan, could be disastrous. During the holy month, prices skyrocket and people need extra support while fasting. This is evident from a recent statement by 12 of the most prominent Rohingya community-based organisations in Cox's Bazar.
They said, "We strongly believe that the shortage of funding for the Rohingya response is a failure of the United Nations. [...] This announcement of cutting food rations will create a devastating situation for the Rohingya and will have severe implications, including child labour, human trafficking, child marriage, illegal activities, prostitution, and a hostile environment."
"[...] We call on the international community to not only cut our food but also make time to help us return to our home, as repatriation is the only long-term solution to these frustrating issues," they added.
Their core message is simple: While we wait to return to our homeland, we need food to survive.
Short of designing a solution that includes safe repatriation, the international community must pay heed to the realities of refugee camps and ensure that the Rohingya people receive an amount of food that is more than the minimum amount needed for their survival. The WFP is funded by governments and private corporate and individual donations. And the fact is that the powerful states have enough money.
Take, for example, the United States. In just three days between Super Bowl Sunday and Valentine's Day, Americans spent approximately $40 billion on arguably very nonessential activities. We are not saying that the money to offset the proposed food cutbacks in Cox's Bazar has to all come from the US.
That said, the US example demonstrates that there is enough disposable income in our world to help feed hungry people, especially those who are going to be put at immediate mortal risk due to WFP cutbacks.
Reducing food support for vulnerable populations contradicts the commitment to aid at-risk communities and raises accountability concerns. For refugees, exclusion from social safety nets exacerbates their vulnerability and makes accessing necessities more difficult.
Injustice is evident in the crisis of food for the Rohingya, who are forced to flee their homes due to violence and persecution and are now unable to access adequate food and nutrition, violating their basic human rights.
The failure of the international community to protect vulnerable people is evident in the fact that many refugees are still unable to access food to survive. It may have resulted from a lack of political will or resources or conflicts of interest. Political decisions and policies can affect the allocation of aid and contribute to global discrimination and a lack of empathy towards refugees.
The major donors providing aid to the Rohingya crisis are primarily from North America and Europe who are advocating for securing rights and democracy in Bangladesh. On the flip side, China has been a big development partner to Bangladesh. The international community has been somewhat divided along political and national lines.
The divide in support for the Rohingya crisis can be attributed to factors such as geopolitical interests, economic incentives and ideological differences. Further research is needed to determine whether the recent withdrawal of support could pressure the current Bangladeshi government during the upcoming election.
The recent shortfall of rations for Rohingya refugees could have dire consequences and they may turn to the local labour market for survival. However, economic opportunities in the host community are already limited and many locals are opposed to the presence of the Rohingya. If Rohingya refugees receive fewer food rations and are also prevented from being able to formally access the labour market, regional instability will most certainly escalate.
The Rohingya crisis highlights the moral failure of the international community, particularly affluent states. Safe repatriation is a long-term solution, but until then, they must allocate food monies reasonably and provide adequate food and nutrition. It is crucial to prioritise humanitarian aid and show more empathy towards refugees.
Dr Thomas Arcaro is a professor of Sociology at Elon University, US.
Mohammad Azizul Hoque is a Research Associate at Centre for Peace and Justice, BRAC University, Bangladesh.