Participation and inclusion in the Rohingya refugee response in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh ‘We never speak first’

Lough, O., Spencer, A., Coyle, D., Jainul, M.A. and Barua, H.
Publication language
Date published
28 Oct 2021
Research, reports and studies
Accountability and Participation, Forced displacement and migration, Refugee Camps, humanitarian action, Protection, human rights & security

The refugee settlement in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh is a profoundly challenging context in which to involve Rohingya communities meaningfully and inclusively in decisions that affect their lives. The Rohingya have been systematically excluded from social, economic and political life in Myanmar for decades. This marginalisation has also been reflected in their experience of displacement in Bangladesh, where they have been severely limited in their ability to exercise basic rights as refugees.

These experiences have combined with restrictive gender norms, language barriers and the dislocating experience of displacement itself to pose significant practical challenges to broad-based participation. This has been exacerbated by the sheer scale of the crisis and the stretched resources available to meet it. These issues have been substantially compounded by the approach taken by the Government of Bangladesh, which has heavily restricted and continues to squeeze the space for participation as part of a wider agenda of containing the refugee problem, with a view to swift return.

This study explores issues related to participation and inclusion in the humanitarian response in Cox’s Bazar. It examines whether and how Rohingya refugees are involved in decisions that affect their lives, the mechanisms through which this happens, and the link between these dynamics and a more inclusive response. It forms part of a wider project by HPG examining inclusion and exclusion in humanitarian action.

Overall, the study finds little evidence to support the assumption that protracted displacement is creating space to deepen participation over time, even as the response enters its fifth year. Refugees interviewed expressed widespread frustration at being cut out of decisions affecting their lives. They also repeatedly highlighted the misalignment between their perception of the scope and focus of humanitarian programming, and their own priorities and lived experiences.

The study found that feedback loops are not being properly closed, complaints and feedback processes are a dysfunctional and alienating experience for many refugees, and Rohingya voices are excluded from having a meaningful say in setting strategic or operational agendas. The increasing use of sector-focused refugee committees is identified a promising step forward, but their role often remains limited to programme support rather than accountability. Self-help groups and other efforts to support more rights-based mobilisation of vulnerable groups offer a promising model, but remain in their infancy. Meanwhile, refugee civil society struggles to find entry points to engage with the humanitarian response.

To improve inclusive participation in the response, the study offers recommendations to response and sector leadership, donors and implementing agencies.