Cutting food aid will be disastrous for Rohingya refugees

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has cut life-saving food vouchers for Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar to just $8, or less than 9 cents per meal, putting another blow on them. For the past few years, funds under the Joint Response Plan (JRP) have been on the decline, increasing the shortfall. In 2022, only $553 million of the required $881 million was received under JRP, a shortfall of 37 percent. In 2021, the shortfall was 28 percent, and in 2020, it was 40 percent. The 2023 appeal, which requested $876 million, has only been 24.6% funded as of June, making Rohingya refugees particularly vulnerable this year.

By Kamal Uddin Mazumder,

At the beginning of the year, refugees were receiving rations from the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) of $12 per person per month—just enough to meet their daily needs. However, on March 1, due to a lack of funding, the rations were reduced to $10. The vouchers are used to purchase 13kg of rice per person, as well as other food products. The WFP is now reducing the value of its food aid from US$10 to US$8 per person per month. Such a worrisome trend is detrimental to the well-being of the refugees who have lived in the camps for the last six years.

WFP food assistance is the only reliable source of food for the Rohingya. According to WFP data, four in 10 families were not consuming enough food, and presently 12 percent of children are acutely malnourished and 41 percent are chronically malnourished. This was before the ration cut. So, the result of food budget cuts will be devastating due to widespread malnutrition and hunger.

The impact of the aid deficit will be dangerous for the refugees. Already, 45 percent of the refugees could not afford a balanced diet with $12 per month. Before the ration cut, already 40 percent of Rohingya children had stunted growth, and 40 percent of pregnant and breastfeeding women were anemic, according to the WFP’s own calculation. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) states in a press release in March 2023 that “cuts to the food rations received by one million Rohingya refugees will increase their risk of malnutrition and have a serious impact on their health.” Prolonged malnutrition could give way to more chronic ailments like heart disease, type II diabetes, etc. Evidently, ending up with a sick refugee population is going to put even greater financial pressure on the host country as well as donors.

More than 95 children are born in the Rohingya camps every day, and the Rohingya population is expected to grow to 1.2–1.3 million by 2025, according to a defense ministry report. Bangladesh, in the aftermath of the double economic shocks of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, is struggling to provide for the Rohingya refugees, especially because of the ever-dwindling funds from the international community. How is Bangladesh expected to support this growing population in the face of shrinking donor aid?

UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Michael Fakhri and Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, warned about “devastating consequences” due to the ration cut: more malnutrition, more disease, fewer services, and increased insecurity in the camp. With less food to get by, Rohingyas have little choice but to resort to negative coping mechanisms. Children may be withdrawn from school or girls offered to child marriage, WFP said.

A major risk for the Rohingya is the possibility of an increased crime rate as a result of the dwindling aid. As assistance becomes more and more elusive, livelihood and life choices for the Rohingya will become more difficult and reckless. We have already seen a sharp rise in violent crimes inside and, at times, outside the Rohingya refugee camps in the last couple of years. Already, many Rohingya have been detained on charges of drug and arms trafficking. The spillover effect from drugs is decimating not just the district but is now a nationwide problem.

Food insecurity in those camps means more trafficking of women, children, and adolescent girls, and more malnourishment of the young in particular. With the economic hardships creating an added burden on the refugees, criminal gangs would find it easier to recruit Rohingya youth to serve their criminal activities, from drug dealing to prostitution to human trafficking.

The United Nations’ decision to slash food aid for the Rohingya has come as a shock, not just for the refugees but also for the host nation. Such a decline in aid is increasing pressure on Bangladesh as it has to maintain the camp with inadequate funds. Moreover, it is also not sustainable for the host country to increase its own budgetary support for the Rohingya since the country is already facing an economic downturn fuelled by the war in Ukraine, inflation, a negative balance of payments, and fluctuating forex reserves. So, how does the international community propose the Rohingya refugees survive on a monthly allowance of USD 8, down from USD 10, which was already a little too stretched for them?

When Bangladesh opened its border on humanitarian grounds and hosted the Rohingya refugees in 2017, the international community pledged to provide the necessary budgetary support and ensure quick repatriation. Six years on, the international community must not forget its commitment. They must play a more active role, as they pledged to do in 2017. While quick and swift repatriation should be at the center of the commitment, the budget shortfall must be avoided as long as the Rohingya live in temporary shelters in Cox’s Bazar.

Not only Bangladesh, but the Rohingya crisis is the responsibility of the international community, which has not only failed to broker a safe and dignified repatriation for the refugees but has also shamelessly invested in the military-controlled businesses and development activities in Myanmar, including in Rakhine state, from where the Rohingyas have been mercilessly uprooted. The Rohingya deserve more than just mere words of “concern,” and the world must remember that.

Finally, the Rohingya already live in inhumane conditions in the camps. The reduction in aid means further worsening the situation. Therefore, budgetary support should increase with time instead of declining. Other than paying lip service to what a brilliant job Bangladesh and its government have done to save a people from deliberate persecution, the foreign powers must reprioritize the Rohingya refugees and reaffirm their funding commitments to meet their basic sustenance needs. Talking about human rights and dignity must be backed up by financial commitments.

Kamal Uddin Mazumder, Researcher and Strategic affairs analyst. Dhaka, Bangladesh

Pressenza New York