On the second of July, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres will visit the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh. His visit will be an important showing of solidarity with the Rohingya and with the government that is hosting them.
But for the sake of the Rohingya, the visit should also address some uncomfortable truths, namely that ongoing restrictions by the government of Bangladesh as well as inefficiencies in the UN response are unnecessarily putting lives at risk.
To be sure, the government of Bangladesh and UN agencies have put forth great effort in providing refuge and humanitarian support to more than 700,000 Rohingya fleeing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.
However, as I heard from dozens of local and international humanitarian actors and Rohingya refugees during a recent Refugees International mission, restrictive policies and lack of effective management and coordination are hindering efforts just as a new level of emergency arrives.
As the heavy rains and high winds of the monsoon season intensify, Bangladesh continues to limit materials for shelters in the Rohingya camps largely to tarpaulin, bamboo, and wire. Already, more than 1,000 shelters have been damaged by wind and rains, according to the Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) overseeing the humanitarian response in Cox’s Bazar.
Efforts to relocate the 150,000 Rohingya identified as most at risk of landslides and flooding have been hampered by a government reluctance to provide further safe land and delayed approvals to carry out the earth works needed to reinforce the land that was given.
Slow and burdensome visa and project approval processes also continue to limit the ability of international humanitarian organizations to provide essential aid and services.
While some notable efforts have been made to provide camp passes and to convert visas to the type needed for humanitarians to provide services, broader limitations remain.
Project approvals can take weeks or even months, and too often critical services are being delayed or prevented outright. This has impacted efforts to enhance capacity and expertise for programs aimed at gender-based violence (GBV) and child protection to assist the most vulnerable among the Rohingya.
This also threatens to delay the deployment of additional health experts ahead of likely disease outbreaks. Already, a diphtheria outbreak has affected close to 8,000 people.
To address these issues, Bangladesh should establish clear and consistent guidance for NGO registration, project approvals, and visas. It should also streamline its humanitarian response structure by updating its 2013 National Strategy and National Task Force related to the Rohingya.
Ultimately, the government should recognize the Rohingya as refugees with accompanying rights including access to justice, health services, livelihoods, and education, and allow aid organizations to provide these services. But most immediately, the government should seek to provide additional safe and suitable land for the Rohingya and allow the use of more durable shelter materials.
At the same time, the UN needs to put its own house in better order. The international humanitarian response to the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh is unlike any other in the world. Working within parameters set by Bangladesh, the UN has established a hybrid operation with unclear and overlapping roles, responsibilities, and accountabilities for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The result is a lack of effective coordination and oversight of minimal standards, particularly affecting sensitive response sectors like GBV and other services for women and girls. And as the monsoon season intensifies, differences in training and roll-out schedules across camps are already resulting in signs of discrepancies in levels of preparedness.
In addition to raising concerns with the Bangladesh, the secretary general should use his visit to call upon the heads of UNHCR, IOM, and the office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs (OCHA), those who established the current system, to carry out a joint visit to Bangladesh to develop and adopt measures to strengthen management, coordination, coherence, and accountability in the international response.
This need not mean an immediate wholesale change in structure, particularly given that the response is in the midst of an emergency, but failure to address inefficiencies in the current system will endanger both short and long-term efforts.
In particular, the three leaders should press for stronger and more unified promotion of key humanitarian issues by the UN’s strategic executive group (heading the UN’s humanitarian response) and provide greater power and authority to the field-level ISCG senior coordinator and sector coordinators to ensure coherence and consistency in provision of services in the camps.
Of course, as the secretary general of the UN stands in the camps in Bangladesh, he must also look across the border to Myanmar where the root causes and ultimate solutions to the Rohingya crisis lie. International efforts to promote conditions that will permit safe, voluntary, dignified, and sustainable repatriation of the Rohingya to their homeland must remain the focus.
But until those conditions are realized, the Bangladesh, supported by the international community, must ensure the most effective response possible for the wellbeing of the Rohingya, who have already been forced to flee their homeland.
Guterres is well placed to deliver this message of both solidarity and constructive criticism. In his visit, he must not shy from the hard conversations that sometimes need to occur among friends. The Rohingya deserve no less.