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Salvation for the Rohingya?

  • Published at 12:00 am February 10th, 2019
Can Ugandan solutions be applied to the refugee camps in Bangladesh? MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU

What Bangladesh can learn from Uganda. 

Myanmar has effectively halted the progress of civilization through continuous persecution and mass genocide. At this time, the road back to Myanmar is too dangerous and uncertain. The deteriorating Bangladesh camp conditions render long-term residence impossible. Humanitarian capital should be re-directed towards temporary resettlement in Bangladesh.

Answering the question 

Just this year, Bangladesh met the threshold for graduating from least developed country status, and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been lauded for Bangladesh’s three-fold increase in the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) during her 10 years in power. 

Fresh off winning a third term in office, all eyes are on the prime minister to raise Bangladesh into the middle-income territory by 2021. We must appeal to her robust economic vision for Bangladesh. Yet, the idea of accepting the Rohingya as refugees spurs a broad spectrum of political fear. Thus, building trust requires a willingness to accept a temporary path forward. 

Enter Deferred Enforced Departure (DED). In the United States, this valuable tool allows the president to wield foreign policy authority rather than law to designate the limited benefit. There are no specific criteria for making DED decisions or determining eligibility. At a minimum, beneficiaries receive a work permit and stay of deportation. For the time being, this tool could resolve the confusion over Rohingya status in Bangladesh, opening the door for mutual economic gain.

Framework for a temporary Rohingya integration model

Data on the economic benefits of permitting refugees to participate in their host countries’ economy is scarce. A deep dive into another part of the world was necessary. The Uganda model offers guidance on how to build an economic relationship that works for both parties.

Uganda hosts the largest refugee population in the world, welcoming refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, South Sudan, and Rwanda. Praised as having one of the most generous refugee policies, the Ugandan government provides refugees with freedom of movement, work permits, access to education, health care, and government-owned parcels of land to farm. This policy has produced profound results benefitting both refugees and Uganda.

Between 2013 and 2015, Senior Research Officer at the Refuge Economies Progam at the University of Oxford Naohiko Omata, along with his colleagues, conducted a multi-sited Uganda study examining refugees’ economic interactions with local host communities across four different environments -- specifically, the established Nakivale and Kyangwali settlements, the emerging Rwamwanja settlement and the capital city of Kampala.

The Nakivale settlement established in 1959 and Kyangwali settlement in 1989 are characterized as “settlements” because of their open layout and economic freedoms. Both are located in the rural southwest, but their commercial reach surpasses geographic boundaries. Refugees are allocated land to cultivate. For instance, during the harvest season, Ugandan trucks frequently visited the Kyanwali settlement to purchase maize, which is sold in local markets, greater Ugandan cities and nearby countries. 

Through the years, Kyanwali refugees have also launched small businesses that purchase goods from Ugandan wholesalers. Refugees at both Nakivale and Kyangwali have shattered expectations, becoming critical links in the regional and national commercial supply chain.

The Rwamwanja settlement opened in April 2012 in emergency response to increased Congolese refugee arrivals. Similar to Kyangwali and Nakivale, refugees were given a plot of land. A basic exchange of food and non-food aid items started and soon enough local Ugandans joined in on the trading. Despite a lack of cultural ties or shared language both the refugees and Ugandans formed a successful business partnership that evolved into organized markets. 

For instance, Kaihura, one of 36 villages inside the settlement, received about 2,000 Ugandan market sellers and customers a day. In addition, refugee and aid worker arrivals have infused local economies, creating prospects for Ugandans to establish new businesses and expand existing ones to accommodate the growing population. The settlement represents the constructive impact of quickly converting an emergency response into a workable solution.

With a population of over 1.5 million, Kampala is the largest city in Uganda. Refugees are immersed within the Ugandan national and migrant population.

Somali refugees live and work with Somali-Ugandans and Somali migrants in specific Kampala regions. Somali refugees have the benefit of ethnic ties and fill labour demand gaps. Large Somali-Ugandan enterprises hire Somali refugees too. 

In contrast, Congolese refugees live throughout Kampala among Ugandan communities. The Congolese have tapped into the Ugandan market by selling traditional fabrics that are high in demand; creating successful economic relationships with Ugandan merchants. The Somali and Congolese refugee integration into Kampala is both astounding and hopeful for future models.

The take-home point of Naohiko Omata’s impressive evidence-based study is that it identifies refugees as “market creators” if provided with the economic freedom to participate in their host countries’ economy.

Since July 2016, similar to Bangladesh, Uganda has hosted an influx of refugees with more than a million from the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. That year, a team from the University of California Davis partnered with the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) to conduct a research study.

The team collected data in and around the Adjumani and Rwamwanja settlements, calculating the economic impact of humanitarian food assistance and Uganda’s generous policy of providing agricultural land. The results revealed that refugees produce a significant “income multiplier.”

When the WFP provided cash to a refugee household, the annual income in the Ugandan economy increased by $1,100, and by $850 when assistance was given in food form. The study verified that cash-based transfers boosted their purchasing power, leading to increased contributions within the local economy. Further, this study confirmed the economic advantages of refugee farming on resettled land, the purchase of local agricultural materials, and the sale of crops. Notably, households that had been given land contributed as much as $220 each annually to Uganda’s economy. 

* * *

Present-day conditions reveal a far-from-perfect Uganda Model -- vulnerable to several pressure points and controversy. Despite a rise in Uganda’s GDP, the country is categorized under “low human development,” ranking 162 out of 189 countries on the 2018 Human Development Index.

The economy simply cannot catch up with challenges such as population surges, devastating poverty, and the effects of erratic weather patterns on farmland. Just to accommodate the 2016 and 2017 new refugee arrivals, the Ugandan government was forced to scale back on its land allocation policy and reclaim land from settled refugees. Recent reports of humanitarian aid mismanagement have also surfaced.

Recognizing the need to keep track of refugee numbers, in March 2018, the Ugandan government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) implemented a biometric verification program that recorded fingerprints and iris scans of about 1.1 million refugees.

However, a June 2018 progress report revealed that one settlement had overestimated numbers, a detriment that could adversely affect fundraising and future humanitarian intervention efforts.

Notwithstanding, an internal investigation was launched and the verification program continued.

Despite the Uganda Model’s pressure points, the Ugandan government, and global actors are driven to overcome hurdles and back its success. Several initiatives have been launched to combat continuing challenges.

In particular, the UN and World Bank designed “the Refugee and Host Population Empowerment” framework. 

It focuses on transitioning emergency to development-minded refugee responses within host countries promoting inclusion. Also, global community members such as the EU are making financial strides to support the model’s future.

Ethiopia forges ahead

On January 17, 2019, Ethiopia, home to the second largest refugee population, passed a ground-breaking law allowing close to one million refugees to leave their camps to live and work. This bold law grants a broad range of rights.

For instance, refugees can now acquire limited work permits, drivers’ licenses, access farmland, and enroll their children in school. Ethiopia is paving the way for a self-reliant refugee population that is anticipated to contribute to its economic growth.

2018 refugee integration study
Surprisingly, in 2018, three migration policy and research agencies, namely, the Xchange Foundation, Migration Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), and Eurasylum joined forces to explore refugee integration via a pilot project proposal in Cox’s Bazaar.

Similar to the Uganda model, research confirmed that the Rohingya and Bangladeshi host communities share similar business markets. The proposal focused on Shamlapur, a small fishing village with a population of 30,000 that includes over 9,000 Rohingya.

The objective was to stimulate the Shamlapur economy by advancing new economic activities that involve both Bangladeshi nationals and some Rohingya. Methods include pin-pointing current and future market opportunities within and outside of the fishing industry, attracting new investments such as micro-finance loans for small business launches, and temporarily lifting refugee employment restrictions through implementing a preferential tax regime.

As of April 2018, the Xchange Foundation conducted a detailed survey among Shamlapur Bangladeshi and refugee populations that aimed to understand local production and trading in the region. Another goal was to identify skill shortages and market gaps and create training programs to fill them.

Following the completion of the surveys, the group planned to engage in discussions with international organizations and NGOs in Cox’s Bazar and prepare a report to be shared with a range of donors and private foundations within Bangladesh and internationally to secure project assistance.

Further information regarding the proposal’s outcome is not yet available.

The starting point

Indeed, these refugee integration models offer the bedrock to build a temporary economic integration model. The Rohingya have skills directly matching core industries in Bangladesh such as rice farming, fishing, and garment-making. The overall economic impact has yet to be discovered.

However, the data from these studies provide a hopeful glimpse into market success. The cracks in the model deliver crucial warnings that hopefully will also aid in its development.

More importantly, working closely with the Bangladesh government to design and test a mutually beneficial model gives the Rohingya a fighting chance to transform their narrative.

Cox’s Bazar is on the heels of imploding, and even a temporary resettlement plan calls for more land to accommodate the Rohingya population. The Human Rights Watch, in its August 2018 report “Bangladesh is not my country,” identified potential relocation sites both within the government containment area created to limited refugee movement, and outside (should the government decide to ease movement restrictions).

Subject to further site investigations, these relocation options can be advanced into future Rohingya settlements.

Of course, any relocation plan would require testing as well as the gradual and voluntary shift of small population sub-sections at a time.

Persuading the Bangladesh government to temporarily resettle the Rohingya is a tall order. However, significant global humanitarian support for a fair and sustainable temporary integration model may be the solution the world has been waiting for. 

Dimple T Shah is an attorney in the United States as well as an immigration and human rights activist.