Repatriation or permanent settlements should take precedence over spending money to prolong the status quo for Rohingya refugees around the world.

Today international donors from the US, EU, UK and UN will meet to discuss humanitarian aid for more than one million Rohingya refugees, many of whose situation has worsened due to the pandemic. 

But the premise of the conference is a misdirected one: the Rohingya I have met and worked closely with in Bangladesh do not want 'aid' - they want a home, ideally their home in Myanmar. 

Rather than endless humanitarian spending sprees, the international community must focus on pressuring Myanmar to ensure the safe return and the civil rights of one of the world’s most vulnerable communities. Failing that, asylum should be granted in the US, EU or even rich Muslim-majority nations in an expression of Islamic solidarity. 

The world cannot continue to lean on Bangladesh - itself a densely populated developing country - to shoulder the burden alone, however, willing Bangladeshis are to do whatever they can with limited resources.

Three years after the latest influx of Rohingya refugees - leading to the creation of the world’s biggest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh - there is still no long-term plan for their settlement or support.

Thursday’s conference is impressive in its guest list, but less so in its vision.

All the leading Western world powers have, in the midst of a pandemic and economic crises, acknowledged that the Rohingya cannot wait. This effort is being led by the US.

However, the limitations of the conference are betrayed by its title: ‘Sustaining Support for the Rohingya Refugee Response’. It defines the international community’s mission as merely ‘sustaining support’ (ie. continuing to write cheques) rather than creating sustainable solutions.

Those cheques are likely to be large: the conference is seeking ‘multi-year’ funding. But multi-year is not the same as long-term, sustainable, or permanent.

Having worked in both political circles (most recently in convening the Dhaka Forum which was dubbed ‘the Davos of the Global South’) and as a humanitarian worker, I understand both perspectives.

Politicians, particularly those not in refugee host countries, are keen to contain what they see as the refugee problem. The easiest way to do this is to frame the issue as one of funding and to then provide that funding. It is simply delegating a global challenge to particular countries in ‘humanitarian outsourcing’.

But many humanitarian workers and NGOs see it differently. Of course, refugees need material support: I have seen first hand how Bangladeshi villagers shared their clothes, food and sometimes even their homes with Rohingya arrivals.

But more than that, refugees want a home. And a tent or Portakabin in a refugee camp, whilst living without settled status, is not it.

Ideally, this should be in their home country. There has been a repatriation agreement for Rohingya to return home to Myanmar since 2017. This continues to be the dream outcome for the Rohingya themselves, as well as host nations and donor countries.

For refugees, returning home is often impossible. Many refugees are fleeing complex, intractable conflicts with no end in sight, with the best-case scenario being a hostile post-conflict society that is almost as dangerous as the conflict itself.

But the Rohingya’s situation is different because what they are fleeing is actually quite simple. One hostile actor - the Myanmar army - conducted what was euphemistically referred to as ‘clearance operations’ on their land.

These operations have now ceased, so what is needed are guarantees that they will not restart in future, particularly if Rohingya were to return home in large numbers.

The channels to do this are readily available. Myanmar maintains formal or informal diplomatic relations with all the key players at the conference. Trade relations are also extensive: Myanmar benefits from the EU’s Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) programme, which essentially gives it free trade access to the world’s largest trading bloc.

These diplomatic channels combined with the threat of sanctions could facilitate the presence of international observers to ensure the safe return of the Rohingya home to a Myanmar where their religious, cultural and civil rights are respected.

Many Rohingya I have worked with feel they are second class refugees. While Europe congratulated itself for welcoming a million mostly Syrian migrants, just months later it was content to all but ignore the Rohingya, and continue trading with their aggressor.

If Europe will not step up, perhaps Muslim-majority countries who have not traditionally been host nations for refugees can fill the gap. Many Gulf nations have observed the economic and cultural benefits to Turkey of becoming a humanitarian superpower and hosting the highest number of refugees in the world, per capita.

It would be politically savvy as well as humane if the leader of a wealthy Gulf nation were to replicate Merkel’s stance and open their borders to the Rohingya in an expression of Islamic solidarity.

Any of the options above would be preferable to the status quo. 

Bangladesh has happily hosted the Rohingya and managed the biggest refugee camp in the world with the hope and expectation that there would be a real solution to their persecution - not that this persecution would be normalised and bankrolled by Brussels.

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