From the Editor-in-Chief - The World Bank’s Refugee Policy Review: Nothing to get spooked

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The Foreign Ministry’s rather hot response to the draft of a World Bank policy document on their lending strategies with respect to refugees, in “fragile and conflict situations”, was slightly uncalled for. More of a knee-jerk that spoke to some anxiety on the part of Bangladesh to attain a much-needed ‘diplomatic victory’, that could only be delivered in the form of a complete and voluntary repatriation. Yet we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this may in fact be illusory. Particularly if there is to be any compromise on the point of it being voluntary, and avoiding refoulement, that would be not worth it. And the Foreign Ministry would do best to stay on that page if it is to truly win the issue for posterity, and not just for political point-scoring.

To restate the position: we will support the Rohingyas’ safe and voluntary repatriation as long as the Rohingyas themselves hold on to that as their ideal. This is what any exercise aimed at gauging this among the displaced population has always yielded that answer. Yet it is always running against a competing reality, and that is the situation on the ground. The foreign minister declared with some bravado to a group of journalists during the lockdown that “They (Rohingyas) will go back.” Haven’t the events in Myanmar since February dented such stellar confidence one bit?

The sensible position to adopt really, is to be prepared for all possibilities, in a situation where we really do have such imperfect information to play with. We cannot afford to dismiss anything out of hand. Yet that is clearly what our reaction to the World Bank’s Refugee Policy Review document, for which it leaned heavily on the UN Refugee Agency, conveyed.

As a development bank that boasts of working “in every major area of development,” looking out for refugee populations is firmly in line with the WB’s mission, even if the people, indeed even more so because these people are often further disadvantaged by being stateless, as the Rohingyas are. At present, the discomfiting stench of xenophobia might just see us return them to hell, if only a gate were to open for them. But everyone knows repatriation without some form of assurance from Myanmar that they would address the core issue of citizenship for their Rohingya population would be to only kick the can down the road. Some 5, or 10, or maybe 15 years later you can rest assured they would have to come back again.

But even that scenario looks a far cry at present. As long as that is the case, we need to ask ourselves, is the best way to deal with this issue really to have this entire population confined in the pre-historic notion of a camp, that is not very different from an open air prison? Effectively turning the lands on which they’re located into black holes on the map for citizens? It is on that general question that the World Bank, UNHCR and others involved in crafting the RPRF are venturing to offer new thinking, and more answers. It is as part of that robust process that it came to be recognised that support set in motion for refugee communities must contain a component that addresses the concerns of the host communities. We need them to remain engaged in that vein.

The Bank revealed this week that it has committed $590 million for Bangladesh to address the needs of both the displaced Rohingya and host communities in Cox's Bazar till now. These are monies being transferred as grants – not loans, in recognition obviously of the part Bangladesh is playing in hosting them. We mustn’t let the sourness of political point-scoring take away from a spirit of cooperation.

  • Rohingya
  • Rohingya Repatriation
  • United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC)
  • The World Bank’s Refugee Policy Review
  • Nothing to get spooked

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