Rohingya refugees face soaring hunger and crime after aid cuts

The cuts, forced by a massive shortfall in funding, have stoked fears of a rise in acute malnutrition and child deaths in the world’s largest refugee settlement.

Emma Batha

Emma Batha

The Jakarta Post


Rohingya Muslim people, who crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, wait for their turn to collect food aid near Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh, on September 20, 2017.(Shutterstock/Sk Hasan Ali)

June 21, 2023

JAKARTA – Every day, 5-year-old Jannat hunts for bottles and cans in the Rohingya refugee camp where she lives in Bangladesh. When she collects enough, she buys a snack to stave off her hunger pangs.

She is one of a growing number of children turning to garbage picking since the United Nations slashed rations for nearly 1 million Rohingya camp residents to just 9 US cents a meal this month.

The cuts, forced by a massive shortfall in funding, have stoked fears of a rise in acute malnutrition and child deaths in the world’s largest refugee settlement.

“The Rohingya face grim choices to make ends meet. There will be grave repercussions,” said Simone Parchment, deputy director for Bangladesh at the UN World Food Programme (WFP), which has been supporting the refugees since they fled Myanmar.

Aid agencies predicted the cuts would fuel soaring crime and gang violence, potentially destabilizing the camps, and encourage human trafficking as more people tried to flee overseas, with ramifications for the wider region.

Increasing hunger could also drive up child marriage, child labor and domestic abuse as tensions spiral.

Jannat’s father, Karim, said his daughter was already losing weight. The family often skipped breakfast and was now subsisting on rice and beans.

“Sometimes my children ask for an apple, but we don’t have the money. It makes us feel so guilty and helpless,” said community leader Karim, who asked to use pseudonyms for him and his family.

The Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority from Myanmar’s Rakhine state, live in bamboo and tarpaulin huts in Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh.

Around 730,000 fled there following a 2017 army crackdown, which the UN said was genocidal in intent, joining others from previous waves of displacement.

As World Refugee Day is marked globally on June 20, refugees told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a video call that hunger was driving some families to marry off their daughters as young as 13 or 14 so they had fewer mouths to feed.

The Rohingya said crime was surging, and that they were particularly alarmed by a spike in child kidnappings.

“A few weeks ago, kidnappers cut off the hand of a teenager when his family couldn’t pay the ransom,” said Karim, adding that criminals targeted families with members abroad who they thought would send money.

Acute malnutrition

The WFP first cut the value of the monthly food voucher from US$12 to $10 in March, but was forced to reduce it to $8 this month after donors failed to stump up.

It needs $48 million to restore full rations.

Wendy McCance, Bangladesh country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) aid agency, warned things could get even worse with a further cut expected this year.

Not so long ago, Karim’s family could afford to eat chicken or fish curry five times a week, with a few vegetables and fruits.

But last month, his shopping list was reduced to three items: rice, oil and salt. He could not even stretch to a little turmeric to add flavor to the family’s monotonous diet.

The WFP said the latest cut would likely lead to a “precipitous spike in acute malnutrition”, increasing child deaths, sickness and stunting.

Even before the first reduction, one in eight children was acutely malnourished and two in five stunted, impacting their cognitive and physical development and future opportunities.

Donor fatigue is common in prolonged crises. Competing demands include the war in Ukraine, the earthquake in Turkey and Syria and drought in East Africa.

The WFP has also cut rations in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burundi, Chad, Ecuador, Mali, Palestine, Tanzania and Uganda.

But a group of UN experts said the “catastrophic cuts” for the Rohingya were “a stain on the conscience of the international community”.

They said many governments had offered strong rhetorical support for the Rohingya but failed to contribute a single penny toward humanitarian relief in Bangladesh.

A $876 million humanitarian plan to meet the Rohingya’s broader needs is only a quarter funded.

Cannot work

Unlike some other refugee populations, the Rohingya are almost totally dependent on aid, as they are barred from working by Bangladeshi authorities and cannot leave the camps.

There are no formal schools for their children and they have no access to land to grow their own food.

Some Rohingya make a little money helping humanitarian groups and UN agencies in the camp, with jobs like guarding warehouses and building drains.

Although Bangladesh has fenced off the camps, others go fishing at night or work illegally in Cox’s Bazar, often accepting below average pay as day laborers, causing tensions with locals in what is one of the country’s poorest districts.

Bangladesh wants the refugees to return to Myanmar, but the Rohingya say they will not go back unless they are granted citizenship and their safety is assured.

UN agencies and humanitarian groups want Bangladesh to lift its restrictions so the refugees can begin to support themselves.

“Refugees are at breaking point,” said the NRC’s McCance. “They need access to livelihoods, land and safe places to live so they can stop relying on aid.”

The ration reductions come amid deteriorating security in the camps, where a gang culture is taking hold and armed groups, including some militant groups involved in fighting in Myanmar, are increasingly active.

McCance said the food cuts would likely increase gang violence and that armed groups may exploit people’s desperation to recruit new members as they jostle for power.

The criminal gangs, some of them connected to the armed groups, are involved in prostitution, arms smuggling and drug trafficking, mostly amphetamines produced in Myanmar and headed for India.

As violence spirals and food dwindles, increasing numbers of refugees are considering risky voyages abroad.

Thousands have already fled to Malaysia and Indonesia, sometimes paying smugglers thousands of dollars.

The refugees know the journeys are dangerous. The boats are often rickety and hundreds have drowned at sea, but many feel they have no choice.

“We don’t want to be dependent on others for the rest of our lives. We need to stand on our own feet,” Karim said.

“We will go with anyone who tells us there is hope.”

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