PublicationNewspaper Article What does development mean for the stateless?

August 17, 2019
Publication Type:
Newspaper Article

Cur­rently, there are upwards of one mil­lion Rohingya refugees liv­ing in Cox’s Bazar. For all the talk of mov­ing the Rohingya else­where, such as Bashan Char Island, or repa­tri­at­ing them to Myan­mar, it is almost cer­tain that they will remain where they are for an indef­i­nite period of time.

His­tory has shown that the aver­age age of a refugee camp is 12 years. Like most other refugee camp sit­u­a­tions, this one will likely last for at least another decade.

Many NGOs and aid agen­cies that are work­ing on Rohingya issues real­ize that this is not tem­po­rary, and are start­ing to take a longer-​​term view of the camps. The shift from emer­gency relief to devel­op­ment has begun, under­scor­ing the fact that the refugee cri­sis has huge long-​​term impli­ca­tions for how devel­op­ment oper­ates beyond state citizenship.

The Rohingya cri­sis is a use­ful case study to under­stand how refugees are slowly being brought into the tra­di­tional devel­op­ment frame­work. The scope of facil­i­ties and pro­grams set up by the Inter­na­tional Orga­ni­za­tion for Migra­tion (IOM), UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and the hun­dreds of NGOs work­ing in the camps over the past year is remarkable.

They have built camps from the ground up and orga­nized them into zones with basic roads and latrines, tube­wells, health facil­i­ties, and com­mu­nity cen­ters. How­ever, the sep­a­rate insti­tu­tions that are in place to deal with longer-​​term devel­op­ment and emer­gency relief are not aligned in their goals. This affects the extent of aid given, the type of facil­i­ties that are built, and of course the eco­nomic and polit­i­cal rights and social sup­port that the Rohingya have.

A strong indi­ca­tion of the shift toward devel­op­ment in the Rohingya camps is the recent invest­ment from the World Bank and Asian Devel­op­ment Bank (ADB), of $480 mil­lion and $100 mil­lion respec­tively. Tra­di­tion­ally, these two insti­tu­tions have invested in long-​​term devel­op­ment projects and sup­ported gov­ern­ments in capac­ity build­ing. In the past few years, they have cre­ated a relief fund for emer­gency sit­u­a­tions exactly like the Rohingya crisis.

One of the invest­ments from the World Bank and ADB is in renew­able energy in the Rohingya camps. The invest­ment in energy access shows a grad­ual shift toward longer-​​term, or at least medium-​​term, plan­ning in the camps. Com­pared to inter­na­tional aid fund­ing in every other sector—water and san­i­ta­tion, health, shel­ters, etc.—energy had no allo­cated fund­ing at the begin­ning of the Rohingya influx.

This is largely because energy is not seen as essen­tial to emer­gency relief, which is arguably an out­dated view from the aid indus­try, as energy access is linked to more pos­i­tive health effects and gen­der safety and equal­ity. Now with the World Bank and ADB’s invest­ment plan, there is a por­tion allo­cated to set up some solar mini-​​grids in 2019, as well as con­struct­ing more solar lamps and dis­trib­ut­ing solar lanterns.

His­tor­i­cally, there has not been a sys­tem­atic approach to energy sup­ply in con­flict set­tings because they are thought to be shorter term. Most of the energy is sup­plied ad hoc by indi­vid­ual NGOs or inter­na­tional aid agen­cies, usu­ally through diesel gen­er­a­tors. The move toward renew­able energy shows increas­ing inter­est in long-​​term devel­op­ment because it is inher­ently sus­tain­able and sim­ple to use. A solar mini-​​grid offers a cleaner and more con­sis­tent alter­na­tive to diesel gen­er­a­tors, and can poten­tially be used to anchor local mini-​​grids if the refugee camps are present in the longer term.

Out of all the Rohingya camps, it is strik­ing that the only one that is con­nected to the national elec­tric­ity grid, and thus sit­u­ated for longer term, is a camp in Tek­naf, where some Rohingya have been around for many years and have essen­tially assim­i­lated into the sur­round­ing com­mu­nity. Per­haps the thought here is that there is “value added” if the Rohingya con­tribute eco­nom­i­cally, so it makes sense to invest in elec­tric­ity lines. How­ever, this sit­u­a­tion is exceed­ingly rare, as the vast major­ity of Rohingya can­not move freely out­side the camps and thus are unable to be eco­nom­i­cally independent

His­tor­i­cally, there has not been a sys­tem­atic approach to energy sup­ply in con­flict set­tings because they are thought to be shorter term.

While the notion of devel­op­ment is impor­tant for improv­ing liveli­hoods, the devel­op­ment itself must be done dif­fer­ently for the state­less. Tra­di­tional forms of eco­nomic devel­op­ment do not work for state­less peo­ple who have no means to gain employ­ment. Though there are some cash-​​for-​​work pro­grams and recre­ation facil­i­ties set up by aid agen­cies, the vast major­ity of Rohingya have noth­ing to do dur­ing the day; their rou­tines are often set around food and aid dis­tri­b­u­tion sched­ules. They are recov­er­ing from unimag­in­able trauma. The camps will only con­tinue to grow: Rohingya are still cross­ing the bor­der, though at much lower rates, and there are pro­jected to be 50,000 babies born this year. No amount of aid dis­tri­b­u­tion or tra­di­tional notions of devel­op­ment will fix these facts of life for the Rohingya.

Part of the dif­fi­culty in stream­lin­ing devel­op­ment efforts is the insti­tu­tional power struc­ture of the camps. Since the exo­dus began in August 2017, the Bangladesh gov­ern­ment has not offi­cially labeled the Rohingya as “refugees.” With­out this label, UNHCR could not head the emer­gency relief oper­a­tions in the camps, as they nor­mally would when refugees are involved. Thus, IOM took over camp oper­a­tions. Within a few months, UNHCR was allowed to work in the camps and it started co-​​leading oper­a­tions with IOM. The two human­i­tar­ian stake­hold­ers now over­see relief oper­a­tions in about 10 sec­tors and work along­side the government’s response to the cri­sis, which includes dif­fer­ent gov­ern­ment agen­cies and the Bangladesh army. This web of agen­cies does not have mutu­ally exclu­sive goals, but since they do not nor­mally col­lab­o­rate in this way it has been chal­leng­ing to set­tle on long-​​term goals.

Another chal­lenge is that there is no direct guid­ing prin­ci­ple glob­ally for how to inte­grate state­less peo­ple, let alone how to develop com­mu­ni­ties with them in mind. One of the main guid­ing prin­ci­ples for long-​​term sus­tain­abil­ity plan­ning is the UN Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment Goals, a set of 17 goals that aim to end poverty with strate­gies that build eco­nomic growth and address a range of social needs includ­ing edu­ca­tion, health, and envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion. None of the goals explic­itly address devel­op­ment for state­less persons.

Inter­na­tional NGOs and the UN could adopt a more explic­itly rights-​​based approach to devel­op­ment, espe­cially as more refugee crises and mass migra­tions are pro­jected to occur in the future. This approach would com­bine dif­fer­ent exist­ing con­cepts of inter­na­tional devel­op­ment, such as capac­ity build­ing, human rights, par­tic­i­pa­tion, and sus­tain­abil­ity. The goal would be to empower the group that can­not exer­cise full rights and to strengthen the capac­ity of insti­tu­tions and gov­ern­ments oblig­ated to fill these rights. How­ever, the main crit­i­cism against the rights-​​based approach is that it merely incor­po­rates the lan­guage of human rights with devel­op­ment, but does not change the pro­grams being imple­mented. In order for change to take place, gov­ern­ments must be will­ing to accept refugees and migrants, and hold other coun­tries account­able for the processes that lead to refugees in the first place. Many gov­ern­ments that receive refugees, whether will­ingly or not, are not capa­ble of devel­op­ing long-​​term com­mu­ni­ties for the refugees in their own country.

There are cur­rently about six mil­lion peo­ple in pro­tracted dis­place­ment sit­u­a­tions glob­ally, and even more migrants, who are not offi­cially given eco­nomic and polit­i­cal rights by the state. Crises like this will only con­tinue to hap­pen at vary­ing scales, whether through eth­nic cleans­ing, envi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter, eco­nomic cri­sis, or some­thing else. The UN, devel­op­ment agen­cies, NGOs, and some gov­ern­ments are only just begin­ning to rethink how we pri­or­i­tize refugees and migrants and inte­grate them into exist­ing devel­op­ment frame­works. There will be many lessons to learn from the Rohingya cri­sis for years to come. A likely one will be how to con­cep­tu­al­ize devel­op­ment for those that have been sys­tem­at­i­cally “oth­ered” and persecuted.

Samira Sid­dique is a PhD stu­dent in the Energy and Resources Group at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berkeley 

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