The Tethered Actions Of NGOs And The Rohingya Repatriation Question – OpEd


The Rohingya refugee crisis has taken a protracted turn in Cox’s Bazar- the largest refugee camp of the world hosting over 1.3 million Rohingya refugees. From the very beginning, Bangladesh policyholders were clear about the priority of the Rohingya crisis- that is to ensure repatriation. However, the urgent need to support this huge number of vulnerable people requires a massive amount of national and international support, a painstaking task that was greatly captured by the international and national NGOs since 2017.

Currently, there are almost 150 NGOs operating at Cox’s Bazar, now facing a new funding shortage crisis. The implication of funding shortage impacts both the Rohingya refugee people and the lifecycle of the NGO project themselves; the impacts are urgent but what is more important is to facilitate the repatriation process itself and to acknowledge the fact is that the NGOs are more obsessed in their project-hunting in the Cox’s Bazar than supporting the process of repatriation. 

As the Rohingya refugee crisis erupted at the border of Bangladesh and Myanmar, the primary public advocacy that spawned in the media was not from any government or political leaders, rather it was from the United Nations. In 2018, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations stated that Myanmar’s Rakhine State had become one of the worst humanitarian and human rights crises with identifying the Rohingya people as one of the most vulnerable communities in the world. However, it is only recently that the international community has been showing a gradual donor fatigue on this crisis, mostly visible in the acute funding shortage and protracted situation of it. Recently, UNHCR,  the central UN body to mediate NGOs, government partners and institutions on the Rohingya crisis has stopped food supply to the 23 Rohingya people who are willing to repatriate. The recent 67% drop in full assistance to the NGO resulted in a significant decrease in refugees’ food intake. The demanding question arises on the long-term efficacy of NGOs in providing a sustainable solution to the Rohingya refugees and the urgency to facilitate repatriation of them to Myanmar. 

Since 2018, the Cox’s Bazar economy located in Ukhiya, Kutupalong and the Cox’s Bazar town have been booming due to massive NGO involvement in supporting and aiding the Rohingya’s humanitarian needs. The tourism industry ascended, hotel business sky-rocketed and gender inclusion thrived. The influx of 2017 has resulted in at least 150 international and local NGOs involved in the region. Together they contributed 1.5% of the total humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya people. The important part is that NGOs have taken up their cause as a project-to-profit mechanism to extend their longevity to supply the organization enough resources to run in the future. Similar to the US Army’s more privatized role in the Iraq War 2003, whenever a crisis comes up it brings about profitability opportunities for private companies, charity organizations and NGOs. NGOs run on project-making and project-completing, and it is unlikely an NGO involved in Cox’s Bazar is willing to leave the world’s biggest refugee camp any time soon. 

To maintain the huge refugee number and relocate a portion of them to the Bhashan Char, Bangladesh has already spent around USD 1.3 billion on short-term and long-term action plans. However, the fund shortage is rising at a very critical trend. International fund allocation shortage has increased to about 72.9% of 2022 from 44.5% of 2021 reflecting a worrying trend for diminishing global concern over the issue. Previously, the per capita food allocation of a Rohingya person was around USD 12; now the food allocation has shortened to USD 10. The UN food agency WFP already cut the allowances to 17% along with a sudden UNHCR stopping to food providence have garnered ample worrying over the future position of the humanitarian NGOs towards this persecuted state-less community.

The NGOs are often handicapped in the face of such government-action and funding-shortage previously experienced in Syria, Afghanistan and the United Kingdom. When the government asks the certain assistance policy to be removed by any external agency, or when the funding allocation plummets due to disinterested donor concerns, NGOs have limited ability to continue their project-based actions to support vulnerable groups. The NGO lifecycle exists in partly two forms- either continuation or disruption of the organization but are highly dependent on external factors. Even after proper documentation, appraisal and identification, the NGOs need financing to run their projects by seeking concerned partners and stakeholders. When the financing runs out, the project phases out. 

As already discussed, the decreasing rate of funds is growing year by year. In 2021, only USD 366 million was allocated for the Rohingya community which was only 65% of the required USD 1 billion of total fund. In 2022-23, the rate has grown up to 72%. If this continues, the local and international NGOs won’t be able to fulfill their project and commitment goals to sustain their assistance which also reminds us that NGOs may hold short-term commitments on a humanitarian cause, but that does not guarantee long-term repatriation solution. 

The geopolitics of the US and China rivalry can be another reason that NGOs tend to function if not explicitly but also implicitly within ideological rival camps. The majority of the NGOs, international development organizations and humanitarian partners engaged in Cox’s Bazar are mostly sponsored by the United States and European countries, a few of whom were also sponsored by the OIC member-states. The sponsorship of certain geography influences NGOs to advance the western values and ideology in a very subtle manner in the non-western countries, making them a key vehicle of the western interests.

The key take-away from the NGOs role and their challenging times in Cox’s Bazar is that aiding and supporting the Rohingya refugees for years will not be feasible in coming years. The way NGOs operate in Cox’s Bazar is not for any humanitarian cause, rather it relies on project-hunting opportunities that will readily clash with the government’s repatriation agenda.   The political economy of development and refugee support relies more on the political terms among the hosting countries, stakeholders and donor countries. Finding the right donor to keep the money coming is essential, but what is more critical is to identify the linkages between two agendas- the profitability of NGOs and repatriation of the Rohingya people to their motherland Myanmar. The problem of NGOs’ fatigued role may be a problem of time but solving this won’t solve the big problem of repatriation. 

Ajit Agarwal

Ajit Agarwal is a former consultant of the Asian Development Bank. He holds a PhD from Seoul National University and a MA from the University of Delhi.

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