Why has the UN Cut the Food Budget for the Rohingyas?

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The condition of the Rohingya community seems ever deteriorating and the newest addition to that is the recent announcement from the World Food Programme (WFP) to slash the food ration for the people living in the camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. As if the living conditions in the refugee camps weren’t miserable enough, the WFP has reduced the allotted amount for food rations for the Rohingya community from $12 to $10 per person citing fund shortage, from the beginning of this month (March-2023).  After fleeing their homes in Myanmar following a brutal military crackdown in 2017, which the UN has referred to as being carried out with genocidal intent, more than a million Rohingya refugees have been living in these camps and are facing increasingly difficult circumstances. The Rohingya are anticipated to face further challenges in their already adverse situation as a result of this reduction. Thousands of Rohingyas are now residing in refugee camps fearing starvation and suffering. The cut has already drawn criticism from several human rights organizations, and the human rights watchdogs have already voiced worry as it would deepen food insecurity and malnutrition in the world’s largest refugee settlement. Even UN special rapporteurs Thomas Andrews and Michael Fakhri have described this action as “unconscionable” to the Muslim Rohingya minority, particularly when the fasting seasons of Ramadan is just around the corner. On the other side, this means additional economic burden for host Bangladesh, which itself is entangled with various difficulties of its own and the reduction in ration funds also threatens to destabilize the situation in the camps, causing further security concerns.

The Food Budget Cut

The Burmese military’s onslaught in 2017 caused one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises and about 730,000 Rohingya from Myanmar’s Rakhine state fled to Bangladesh. Over 1 million people, including those who fled in earlier waves, are currently living in 34 different camps across Coxs Bazar in makeshift homes constructed of bamboo and plastic sheets. Even though Bangladesh committed to host the Rohingyas, international aid groups have mostly covered the costs. But starting this month, the WFP has slashed the rations for Rohingya refugees by 17% and issued a warning that further, greater cutbacks will be necessary if no additional funding promises are made by April. To prevent ration cuts, it is appealing for $125 million in funds. With the aid slashing, the dispossessed population is left with a mere $10 per person per month in general food assistance vouchers, down from $12 previously. The voucher may be used to purchase 13 kilograms of rice per person every month and various other food items such as lentils, garlic, onions, salt, eggs, and chiles at the WFP outlet. As the Bangladeshi government forbids refugees from pursuing paid employment, the majority of refugees who are unemployed sell their aid to others for hard cash to meet other needs, such as paying their phone bills or purchasing fish or meat, which is a rare food item on the menu for refugees.

Since their sole source of income is the meager $2.5 to $3.5 per day that they receive from local NGOs in exchange for their voluntary labor, a full stomach and a healthy meal with $10 will be a dream to them because the $12 coupon was already insufficient to satisfy their hunger. The cuts have also coincided with a rising cost of living, reducing purchasing power.  Since the voucher value was already decreasing in value because of the price hike, the reduced voucher will hurt even more with dire repercussions. The survivors of genocidal attacks by the Myanmar military are now further victimized by the failure of the international community to ensure their basic right to food.

Food Aid Was Never Enough

The Rohingya, unlike other vulnerable populations, have very few employment options in the camps and are almost totally dependent on humanitarian aid for their food and other essentials. WFP has been providing food, nutrition, and other essential aid to the Rohingya men, women, and children since their exodus from Myanmar in 2017, with the help of donors and partners. However, the latest pandemic, its impact on the economies of donor nations, economic downturn, and global crises have put a strain on donor finances. Funding for the Rohingya community has been steadily decreasing from 2020.

The Joint Response Plan (JRP) of 2019 by UN agencies and Bangladesh succeeded to collect $636.7 million out of the $920.5 million necessary for the program. Such funding, however, suffered a dramatic fall in the last year’s JRP of 2022 when the donor’s failed to provide more than half of the necessary $881 million budget. This year, just a small portion of the funding necessary for the JRP of 2023 has been gathered, which has a collection goal of $876 million. Citing the fund crisis the WFP said they had to reduce the entitlements “or we will have no funds left very soon”.

Impact of the Crisis

Even if the cut is only $2, the consequences are dire. For Rohingya households, the cutbacks in food aid literally mean the difference between life and death. Despite extensive humanitarian efforts malnutrition has been persistent in the camps and is prevalent in 45% of Rohingya households (WFP). The cut would decrease the amount of calories per person to below the recommended minimum threshold of 2,100 per day for families living in the camps, who have already been forced to reduce their consumption of essential foods owing to an increase in price. The population has already been severely impacted by their five years in refugee camps, especially the women and children. The WFP report reveals that 12% of children have acute malnutrition, 28% of newborn newborns are underweight, and 40% of children have stunted growth. All of these statistics are from before the ration cut. These children will be the worst sufferers of this, along with pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. Increased rates of starvation, declining health, school dropout, and a rise in child marriage, child labor, and gender-based violence are all likely outcomes of this ration cut. Furthermore, it will force them to resort to extreme measures to get employment. A growing number of Rohingyas are taking risky and sometimes fatal boat voyages to migrate to nations like Malaysia and Indonesia, where many end up dying on the sea.

The Ever-Increasing Challenge For Bangladesh

The food allowance cut is a serious blow for Bangladesh and its already struggling economy. The declining fund has far-reaching consequences on Bangladesh also. The Rohingya crisis has already had a toll on the environment of Teknaf and Bangladesh’s economy. The country has to bear the cost of Myanmar’s nations living here. Moreover, Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD), a Bangladeshi think tank recently published a report stating that Bangladesh may need to spend approximately $1.22 billion annually on Rohingya refugees, given that ever since the Russia-Ukraine war the refugees have not received the same level of enthusiasm from the donor and JRP-2023 only received a fraction of its intended budget. If so the refugee population and the host nation will be exposed to an unprecedented disaster that no one is ready to face. Reductions in vital food assistance can make refugees more desperate, which could fuel further violence and unrest in the camps, causing greater security risk for Bangladesh. There have been scores of deadly drug-related clashes in recent months, and numerous community leaders have been murdered. Law enforcement agencies are also investigating a series of organized killings. The fear of radicalization of these desperate people is also on the table, since various militant outfits are active in the camp.

Moreover, there is growing pressure on Bangladesh from the international community to lift the restriction on Rohingya people to leave the camps and engage in paid employment. They are also pressurizing the government to allow the refugees to assimilate with the local community. South Asia Director at the Human Rights Watch, Meenakshi Ganguly, called on the donors to encourage the Bangladesh government to lift livelihood restrictions so that the Rohingya can better support themselves, saying “Refugees should not be considered a burden but a contributor to the host economy.” Moreover, a German parliamentary group recently visited the camps and suggested that in the wake of cuts, Bangladesh should allow aid-dependent Rohingya Muslims living in camps to work. In this dire situation the international community seems to shoulder the problem only on Bangladesh, rather than making the right efforts for repatriation of the refugees back to Myanmar.

Concluding Remarks

It certainly demonstrates the limits of the international donor community’s commitment to some of the most disadvantaged people in the world that they are now turning their back on half a million Rohingya children and their families. While many UN member states have offered rhetorical support for the Rohingya people in the past and have called for justice and accountability for them, the families cannot eat political rhetoric. They need to do more than words and statements of solidarity. International community needs to replace their empty declarations of support with life-saving actions. Unless the international community is proactive and the decisions are quickly reversed, the impact of these cuts will be catastrophic and long-lasting. The consequences of these cuts are likely to be carried by the Rohingya people for generations.

– Wahid Uzzaman Sifat is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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