Insecurity, Risk and Resilience: The Contributions and Challenges of Refugee-led Initiatives in Rohingya Refugee Camps in Bangladesh
Refugee-led initiatives (RLIs) often provide important services and support to refugees and other communities around the world. Yet, there is generally a lack of evidence detailing how this support is provided, and the systemic barriers RLIs face when undertaking this work. Drawing on fieldwork interviews conducted with refugee leaders and representatives in 2022, this report provides the first detailed analysis of the experiences of RLIs working in the Rohingya refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, near the Bangladesh–Myanmar border. The report finds that:
- Large-scale displacement to Bangladesh in 2017 led to the emergence of more than 20 RLIs in the Rohingya refugee camps. These new RLIs have worked to amplify the Rohingya community’s demands for rights and justice. They have also emerged to provide education services, youth services, and other support to community groups and women’s groups in the camps
- The activities of RLIs in the Rohingya refugee camps have been greatly impacted by increased government restrictions and security issues. Due to the Bangladesh authorities cracking down on the political mobilisation of RLIs in 2019, and the increased presence and action of criminal and armed groups in the camps, many RLIs have had to pivot away from direct political advocacy and focus more on direct (and often discreet) community services. This has impacted the political participation of RLIs in decision-making processes in Bangladesh
- RLIs continue to work in a context of severe insecurity and deprivation in Bangladesh. Many RLIs report that they continue to experience insecurity resulting from the restrictions imposed by authorities, risks of violence and lack of access to livelihood opportunities. Those taking on leadership roles work in a high-risk environment that has cost lives and caused 'displacement within displacement'. Like in other contexts, RLIs struggle to access funding to expand their services and effectively remunerate staff. Restrictions on formal registration and banking contribute to this barrier
- RLIs are generally excluded from all existing coordination and decision-making structures relating to their displacement. RLIs have built relationships and engaged with other actors who work in the camps, including government officials, camp authorities, UN agencies, NGOs, and other types of community leaders and representatives. However, they report that they are engaged in only cursory ways, not always trusted and respected, and do not have any meaningful role in decision-making.
- The call for refugee participation in decision-making, coordination mechanisms, and service delivery is urgent. RLIs need funding to become more effective, but their equal engagement would also have a tremendous impact. There is a need for RLIs to be included in relevant fora and for relationships to be strengthened between RLIs and other stakeholders. Support for the inclusion of camp-based RLIs in the design and delivery of policies and services will also contribute to a sustainable resolution of Rohingya marginalisation in Myanmar.