The Challenges of the Humanitarian Response to the Rohingya Crisis

by Alice Debarre

At the end of 2018, more than 135 million people were in need of humanitarian protection and assistance across the world, and a record USD 25.2 billion will be required to respond to those needs in 2019. These people have been forced to leave everything behind as they flee persecution, armed conflict, or natural disasters. Some may be unable to leave, and continue to live in the midst of conflict. Many are victims of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law. These people need food, clean water, shelter, health, and other key services to survive, but they also need much more. Most humanitarian crises today are protracted necessitating humanitarian action well beyond short-term emergency responses. The vast humanitarian needs, as well as the challenges of responding to today’s complex crises, come starkly into light in what has become known as the Rohingya crisis.

In August 2017, the massive influx of refugees to Bangladesh from Myanmar brought the world’s attention to the plight of the Rohingya people. They fled what has been described as ethnic cleansing and genocide in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where they suffered generations of economic, social, and religious discrimination and suppression. Bangladesh currently hosts close to 1 million refugees from Myanmar, most of whom live in vast camps near the border and suffer precarious conditions. While Myanmar and Bangladesh have bilaterally agreed to repatriate these refugees, returns will not be safe, voluntary, and dignified unless conditions on the ground change and the returnees’ safety is ensured. During a visit to Myanmar in November 2018, all humanitarian actors who were interviewed on the ground expressed strong concerns about the first repatriation of refugees, set to begin at the end of that month. So far, however, no refugee has returned through official channels, and many Rohingya have continued to flee Myanmar as developments in Rakhine do not bode well for their future.


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