The Rohingya Refugees and Environmental Justice
What is the Rohingya Refugee Crisis?
The Rohingya people, an ethnic minority in Myanmar predominantly residing in the Rahkine State, are subject to persecution, violence, discrimination and human rights violations at the hands of the Myanmar national military. This violence, which has been labelled as both ethnic cleansing and genocide, has caused many families to flee from their homes to neighboring Bangladesh, which is now overwhelmed by the large influx of refugees. Specifically, the Cox’s Bazar region in Bangladesh is home to the world’s largest refugee camp, where humanitarian aid is vital in supporting the vulnerable refugee community. The health and safety of hundreds of thousands of refugees is compromised and three years into this campaign of violence, their future remains uncertain.
Environmental Justice and Rohingya Refugees
Research has shown that environmental conditions can be linked to both social and violent conflict. As climate change continues to alter existing environmental systems, marginalized populations will become increasingly vulnerable to its effects, further exacerbating inequality, social unrest, and conflict influenced by environmental changes. The populations that are most vulnerable to climate change are often also those exposed to political, social, and economic fragility. In such circumstances, adaptation strategies to address the impacts of climate change are often insufficient or non-existent. Therefore, environmental changes increasingly threaten the physical safety, physical and mental health, livelihoods, social conditions, and rights of vulnerable populations like the Rohingya.
In addition to affecting Rohingya populations remaining in Myanmar, environmentally rooted risks and conflict also threaten the safety of Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar. The area is vulnerable to cyclones, which are increasing in frequency and severity due to climate change, and has resulted in flooding and landslides within the camps, further displacing Rohingya families. These risks endanger refugees’ lives and their ability to cope with an unsafe and uncertain living situation. Additionally, overcrowding and lack of resources in camps contributes toward greater environmental degradation: energy sources are in high demand and the lack of viable energy alternatives has led to continual deforestation, increasing the camps susceptibility to landslides.
The Rohingya people are subject to institutionalized discrimination and oppression in their home country of Myanmar, which has contributed to this humanitarian crisis. Linked to climate change impacts, social and political tensions, environmental vulnerability, and state fragility, this crisis is directly tied with a variety of global structures and root causes. The Rohingya, a Muslim minority in a Buddhist-majority country, are not recognized as an ethnic group in Myanmar and are not able to obtain full citizenship or basic human rights protections.
However, the ongoing civil conflict in Myanmar is also partially rooted in the country’s history as a British colony and has caused the government’s legitimacy to be continuously called into question and challenged. As a result, the Myanmar government has an insufficient capacity to maintain order, protect civilians, and govern a diverse nation.
Continuous human rights violations by the military have resulted in the mass displacement of Rohingya as they flee to escape the destruction of their homes and land. This has had direct and considerable impacts on neighboring countries, namely Bangladesh, as movement out of Myanmar continues to overwhelm a state with limited resources and capacities. International humanitarian aid is relied upon to support the Rohingya refugees, alleviate the financial and administrative burden experienced by the government of Bangladesh and to protect the wellbeing, health, and safety of hundreds of thousands of fleeing refugees.
Restrictions imposed by the government of Bangladesh on the movement and rights of refugees as well as on the operations of NGOs has encouraged an unsustainable approach to humanitarian aid; this has created a dependency on outside assistance rather than empowering refugees by boosting resiliency, independence, autonomy and the possibility for increasing self-sufficiency. Consequently, aid has been centered on financing the unmet immediate needs of refugees at the expense of improving structural challenges the refugees face. Additionally, the restrictions on investments in infrastructure for refugees limits the capacity of NGOs to support and provide for refugees in a sustainable and long-term manner.
Bangladesh and the international community want to see the safe and just repatriation of Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar. However, repatriation is likely a long-term goal, as it faces many challenges and is unlikely to happen in the short-term. In addition to refusing to acknowledge the ethnic cleansing and human rights violations occurring at the hands of the national military, the Myanmar civilian government cannot ensure the safety and security of the Rohingya population within its borders. In the meantime, Rohingya populations in Myanmar IDP camps as well as refugee camps in Bangladesh remain extremely vulnerable.
Where are the biggest risks for displaced Rohingya?
The Rohingya refugee crisis poses a risk to the stability and security of Bangladesh, especially in the Cox’s Bazar District. In addition, refugees are vulnerable to health and safety risks due to the limited capacities of Bangladesh and the international community to provide services and support.
Overcrowding and insufficient health and sanitation infrastructure coupled with a limited capacity to respond and manage the pandemic places Rohingya refugees at greater risk of the Coronavirus. The pandemic has reduced the number of aid workers working in the camps and an outbreak would have serious health consequences for many refugees. Additionally, recent restrictions on internet access by the government of Bangladesh has made information difficult to obtain, which is especially concerning given the rapidly evolving nature of the pandemic.
As a result of these conditions and the lack of access to clean water and nutritious food, refugees are also vulnerable to other health problems such as infectious diseases and malnutrition.
Camp overcrowding has led to severe concerns for the physical safety of refugees, especially women and children. Under these conditions and with very limited protections, they are especially vulnerable to sexual violence and at risk of infections and post-traumatic disorders. Nighttime safety is a major concern when the camps are dark and unpatrolled, which means that going outside or leaving shelter at night is a risk.
Educational opportunities for children displaced by violence are extremely limited, and the futures of many children are uncertain. No central institution provides education to children in refugee camps. Some humanitarian aid organizations offer non-formal educational programs, but their reach and scope are not complete or comprehensive. Moreover, the living environment of refugee camps is not conducive to learning or the safety, health, and well-being of children.
Livelihoods and Economic Resources
The government of Bangladesh restricts the movement of refugees out of local areas surrounding the camps. In addition, Rohingya refugees for the most part are not permitted to find work or be employed. As a result, there are few prospects for Rohingya refugees to find a sustainable livelihood or achieve economic stability that would allow them to improve their living conditions. These policies ensure that the support system for Rohingya refugees will continue to depend on immediate and urgent humanitarian aid from external sources for the foreseeable future. As international attention to this crisis fades, funding to meet basic needs will be overstretched and the vulnerability of refugees will only increase. In the long-term, this strategy is unsustainable and puts the lives of refugees at risk.
Climate and Conflict Research
One of the goals of Peace Rising’s Rohingya Refugee Environmental Justice project is to contribute to the literature and understanding of what has been called the “climate-conflict nexus.” Research teams are reviewing the literature, news, and reports to investigate how the effects of climate change were involved in increasing tension in Myanmar and the recurrence of violence against the Rohingya population that has driven many into refugee camps in Bangladesh. The violence must be examined holistically to bring light to a complicated conflict and the interactions between many variables that have influenced the humanitarian crisis.
In addition to researching environmental influences that led up to large-scale violence, the project explores the opportunities and possibilities environmental peacebuilding offers for working towards a sustainable, just, and safe solution. The research aims at determining the possible effectiveness of using environmental interventions to de-escalate conflict and work towards peace, equality, and environmental resiliency. Research teams are evaluating case studies of environmental peacebuilding programming and the strategies and methods used in different contexts to understand environmental peacebuilding’s feasibility, applicable strategies and interventions, and the conditions under which interventions could be used to improve peace prospects and advance the goals of de-escalation, justice, rights, and repatriation.
The project’s data analysis team investigates the ways in which data can be used to help our understanding of how climate change and environmental variables contribute to conflict. Additionally, the team explores the quantitative methodologies that could be applicable to evaluating relationships between environmental factors and variables related to conflict, tension, social unrest, and violence in the context of Myanmar. Through this work, the team strives to contribute to the quantitative knowledge and research about environmental factors in conflict as well to analyze the relationship between specific variables in Myanmar and to analyze how different environmental peacebuilding approaches and programs would impact the conflict situation in Myanmar. These analyses will be useful in determining the strategies and methods most applicable and effective in de-escalating conflict and fostering sustainable security and climate resiliency in Myanmar.
Peace Rising is committed to facilitating an accessible and inclusive approach to its work. By reaching out to Rohingya activists, local organizations, and NGOs working in Myanmar and Bangladesh, Peace Rising incorporates local knowledge and expertise to aid its projects, direct its research, and improve its knowledge of humanitarian needs. Throughout the project, these partnerships will allow Peace Rising to get feedback from Rohingya communities and offer its capacities to assist the needs of partner organizations. In addition to forming relationships with Rohingya organizations, Peace Rising is working on establishing partnerships with other research groups focusing on the intersection between conflict and the environment. The goal of outreach is to create professional connections and networks as well as to increase participation and inclusivity among the community of organizations working on research and humanitarian aid regarding climate and security intersections.
References and Additional Resources
- Climate Justice in the Rohingya Crisis – from Transboundary Environmental Commons in Southeast Asia (TECSEA)
- A precarious environment for the Rohingya refugees – from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
- Backgrounder on the Rohingya Crisis – from the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)
- Rohingya Crisis Conflict Tracker – from the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)
- Report on Violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State – from the International Crisis Group (ICG)