The Rohingya Crisis in Bangladesh, with BRAC's Muhammad Musa

May 8, 2018

Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. November 2017. CREDIT: UK Department for International Development (CC)

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I am speaking with Muhammad Musa. He is executive director of BRAC, which is based in Bangladesh.

Muhammad, thank you so much for coming by today to the Carnegie Council.

MUHAMMAD MUSA: Thank you for having me here.

DEVIN STEWART: Before we get to talking about the Rohingya issue in Rakhine and in Bangladesh, can you tell us a little bit about what BRAC does?

MUHAMMAD MUSA: BRAC is one of the humanitarian and development organizations in the world. It is one of the largest organizations. We began in 1972 as a humanitarian organization in response to the post-war reconstruction work in Bangladesh.

With time we moved from relief and reconstruction to more humanitarian and social development work which included education for those who are left out, especially girls; then also economic development, we focus on access to financial services and skills development; as well as health programs, where we are serving human beings who are suffering as well as more maternal/child health. As time went on, we moved from only doing those to adding interventions like underlying structural causes of poverty, like gender equality, diversity. We also focused on human rights and legal service programming.

We also moved to governance strengthening. [Inaudible] is disease. The Sustainable Development Goals became our priority focus. We [inaudible] like SDG 1, which is eradication of extreme poverty in all its forms, is one of our focuses; SDG 10, SDG 16, all those are our focus in addition to other things. So it is basically a humanitarian development organization.

DEVIN STEWART: In your organization how do you understand the current situation facing the Rohingya in Bangladesh? Can you explain to our listeners what your assessment is?

MUHAMMAD MUSA: I will just begin by saying that the Rohingya influx that has taken place since August 25, 2017, they came and settled down in two subdistricts of Bangladesh where BRAC has been working for the last 35 years. We had seven offices and 136 staff already in place, so we had a chance to see what was happening.

Over time, all those people came very fast, as well as they settled down and it became one of the densely populated refugee areas in the world. But they are going through phases of situation. First phase was the immediate crisis phase where people came in.

DEVIN STEWART: From Burma, from Myanmar.

MUHAMMAD MUSA: From Burma. They walked or crossed at the phase where their relatives are being killed, their houses are being burned, their women often are getting raped, many of the children are thrown into fire, so they are coming with the fear of life. It's a life-saving situation.

When they are arriving, we notice that they are arriving thirsty and hungry, but many of them are in shock. They are coming and settling down on the side of the roads in the mud, in the rain. They do that any time, and many of them didn't know what to do. They didn't know where to sleep, where to eat, what to eat, and where to go for health care as well as where to go for even toilet use.

Immediately the initial phase was to really take them from there to manage their crisis, give them food, give them shelter, give them clothing, make sure the health care service is there, make sure toilets are being built quickly so that they can go there, as well as some of the other basic needs, like women's needs, like sanitary napkins or things like that.

DEVIN STEWART: How many people are we talking about?

MUHAMMAD MUSA: We are talking about 693,000 came out. That means close to 700,000 people came between August 2017 and now.

DEVIN STEWART: That is two camps.

MUHAMMAD MUSA: Right now a number of camps are there. One camp is the largest one, which is called Kutupalung, where almost 67 percent of the people are there. The remaining are in three or four camps together.

But we had in the past, another 300,000 came between 1991 and last year, so they were there. So together, it became a million people who are there as refugees.

DEVIN STEWART: Is BRAC involved with that humanitarian response directly?

MUHAMMAD MUSA: Yes. As I said, we had employees there. We immediately mobilized about 400 of our staff, and then we we got volunteers from the Rohingya themselves as well as the host communities. So right now 1,600 people are working on behalf of BRAC to support them.

Our supports include water and sanitation, so we constructed 15,000-plus toilets that can give services to them. We have 1,500 water systems, so through that we can reach out to over 400,000 people with water. We have about 50 mobile clinics as well as 10 backup satellite clinics through which we reach out to a large number of people. Every day 8,000 people receive health services. We give shelter materials. More than 50,000 shelters have been built. We give clothes to children. We also now are adding four nutrition centers.

But most importantly now we are running some of the community groups who are protection groups who work on protecting [refugees] from trafficking, abuse of women, especially violence against women, but also we work on ensuring that the camps are being managed. We also have been running some child-friendly spaces where 48,000 children who are abandoned, they are kind of finding spaces for their growth and development. These are all the things we are doing.

DEVIN STEWART: Which other organizations are involved with this response? How about the Bangladesh government?

MUHAMMAD MUSA: The Bangladesh government is coordinating our program jointly with the United Nations, so they do all in terms of coordinating. Within that, a number of organizations are working. In addition to BRAC, which is one of the largest ones there, you will find organizations like Save the Children, Oxfam. You will find Action Against Hunger/ACF International organization. You will find also local organizations like Mukti and a few others there working. So a number of organizations are working there.

We are being coordinated by a UN coordination mechanism, but also the Bangladesh government is coordinating that whole process, too. So they coordinate with each other. It is now together we are managing that whole process.

DEVIN STEWART: How would you describe the situation right now at those camps? My understanding is that your team recently visited the camps.

MUHAMMAD MUSA: We are there. Our 1,600 employees are there. A UN team recently visited.

If I describe what the situation is now, I would say that the initial phase of crisis is over. People are settling in the camps, like typically through the camp setting, which is not very strong. The area is more kind of hilly terrain, and it was forest area, so there was deforestation done. Many of the houses are there.

Part of the situation now that we are encountering is monsoon season soon. Because of the monsoon, one of the key things that happens there is landslides. Those landslides are a common thing in that area, and if there isn't [inaudible], then landslide may cause further fragility to a number of people. But it is not easy to move them out because they don't want to move out from one area to another area. They live in clusters, so a few houses that are vulnerable to landslide will not move out, and they would like to move if the whole cluster moves because one cluster manages it. That is the difficult part, but we are still moving some of them.

Second thing we begin to see, because of the monsoon, there could be disease outbreak like cholera outbreak, [inaudible] outbreak especially as many of the toilets can be soiled out and they can contaminate water sources, so that can happen.

Third thing that may happen is this kind of more protection area. In this kind of situation, the access to those camps may be reduced. As well there could be abuses of women; there could be trafficking that may not be managed very well, so those risks are there.

There are many risks like that, but also providing services in this kind of post-monsoon time or during monsoon time, basic services like health care, food, shelter, and clothing, would be a challenging task in the coming days.

We need resources to really meet that need. Right now the resources required for managing this monsoon season's challenge is not at an adequate level, so that is definitely one of the key things that we are all looking for.

The United Nations has calculated that between March 1 to December, the requirement was like $955 million, but so far we haven't heard about a big pledge, big response. We heard something like less than $150 million is being committed, but more resources are required to support that. That is one of the key things that we—

DEVIN STEWART: Where is that commitment from?

MUHAMMAD MUSA: Multiple governments coming to the UN part. That is the kind of source.

DEVIN STEWART: Who are the biggest donors?

MUHAMMAD MUSA: Usually it is the U.S. government, the British government, the Australian government, various governments, Switzerland government, they donate, but also the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) countries, they donate, various other countries make commitments.

Like last time, this is the second phase. The first phase was for the period of September to February of last year, last year September to this year February. It was a $450 million pledge, and the money raised was $335 million, and that counted like around 50 different countries' response, which was good.

This time we see a lesser response, so we are worried that maybe with time the response will be slowing down at a time especially when this monsoon and its complications may come in, and we have to be careful about it as we may get future problems.

DEVIN STEWART: It sounds like the monsoon is a potential disaster waiting to happen. Are you anticipating a forced move of these refugees?

MUHAMMAD MUSA: It is not possible to move forcefully. What we are trying to do is working with communities and raising awareness among them, helping them to really understand the challenge they have, vulnerability to them, and also helping them set the move-out effort together to several places, like clean land where there is less difficulty in settling down. So we are moving them there.

One other challenge I should like to mention is the challenge with the relationship between the host communities and refugees. In the first few weeks when these people were coming in, host communities of the two subdistricts were quite welcoming. But with time, there was pressure on those communities because they had this common property, resources like watershed. As well, market prices are going up. Jobs are being lost. So tensions began.

As BRAC we undertook a number of studies. We have undertaken a study jointly with Harvard, jointly with Amnesty, finding out what is the kind of situation within the camp and what are the things that host communities are saying. An example would be like in December when we undertook a study we found out that about 67 percent of the Bangladesh communities were very supportive and welcoming to these Rohingya refugees who came into this country, and this is a country-wide perception.

We undertook a recent study in April, a similar kind of thing, and found out it came down below 60 percent. It is now 58 percent of Bangladeshis saying it was a good decision for Bangladesh to welcome this group of people. So it is coming down.

But more worrying is when it came down to the people living in Cox's Bazar, in those communities, on average 36 percent of the communities are saying it was a good decision. That means there is erosion in the support from the host communities for the people who came in. There is a tension growing between host communities and these Rohingya refugees.

Unless we do programming in a way that addresses the challenges that host communities face as well as the challenges that the Rohingya face, then we will be in trouble because that itself can cause big tension and conflict. Therefore, the need now is to really go for a comprehensive humanitarian program for both the Rohingya refugees as well as host communities together.

Therefore, we require like if we are doing schools as well as a water system here in the camps, we have to do a similar kind of thing also in the host communities. If we do livelihood support for the camps, we have to more importantly do it for the host communities because they are losing their jobs, their market prices are going up, so that they can really live their lives and tensions ease up.

DEVIN STEWART: Before we talk about how optimistic you are about that happening, what is the status of the Rohingya in Bangladesh? Are they legally allowed to take jobs? Are they allowed to marry with locals? Things like that.

MUHAMMAD MUSA: No. They are in a camp setting now. In the camp setting as per the government they are not even allowed to come out of the camp area. So there is an area between those two subdistricts. They should be living there.

Even job-wise, because they are receiving humanitarian relief, goods and services, officially they are not supposed to engage in a job. But unofficially they do participate in some jobs that used to be undertaken by host governments. For example, many of the jobs like deep sea fishing that used to be done by—the laborers are from host communities, many times Rohingya participate now. Another one is the salt farming. In the salt pen, it used to be more Bangladeshi labor forces used to work. Now Rohingya can offer cheaper labor because they are getting relief work, so they will be asking [for lower wages], and they can get that kind of job.

DEVIN STEWART: That must be creating some tensions.

MUHAMMAD MUSA: That is one of the things creating tension, that on one hand the ability to earn money for the local host communities is going down. On the other hand, the market prices of goods are going up, so host communities are suffering. That is one of the reasons why these tensions are there.

Another tension is that schools for the host community children are being closed because they are being occupied by many of these refugees or the organizations that are working there. The kids in those communities cannot go to school. So we have to really rebuild the schools so that quickly children can go to school. So there are things to be addressed simultaneously, therefore.

DEVIN STEWART: How optimistic are you about maintaining some harmony between the host country, Bangladesh, and the Rohingya?

MUHAMMAD MUSA: I personally and professionally believe that if we work for both communities together in a very professional manner, we can minimize this potential conflict to a large extent, but to do that we cannot wait. It has to be now, because there is growing tension. If we really go now and work together on both sides and there is a visible difference we can make on both sides then we can really create a market-build opportunity with the interdependency between those two groups.

For example, right now on BRAC's site, we have over 600 young boys and girls from the host communities who are acting as kind of volunteers in the refugee communities, and the volunteer means they are kind of going home to home and they are providing health care services, they're at learning centers, teaching the Rohingya boys and girls, as well they are getting an incentive, a kind of volunteer services, so they see it as an opportunity.

At the same time we also are seeing some services that Rohingya communities can offer. They can produce some of the diefish [phonetic], they can produce some of the crabs. These could be sold in the host community, and that could be helpful.

So the more we create that kind of market buildup and relationship between those two, there is a possibility that we can create a positive environment. So we have to actively [inaudible] including some of peace-building/conflict-resolution interventions. The more we do that, the better we will be. But time is essential.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's talk about timeframe. You said that these things need to happen right now, and if they don't—what's the sort of deadline? How much longer do we have until something catastrophic happens? What does that sort of crisis look like?

MUHAMMAD MUSA: First catastrophe will be monsoon-related. That is something we worry about, and that is now. Beginning in May, Bangladesh faces monsoon, and it continues up to July and August. As I said, every year there have been landslides over there. Rain sometimes can cause flash floods also.

Rain also can cause a very difficult situation to access those communities where refugees settle in to reach them. That is now. We don't have a lot of time on our hands. Move quickly, we can act on removing families, build bridges so that people can have access to those places. We are in a better situation now.

Second is also this tension between host communities and refugees. I also don't think that we should wait on it, because as I said between the December survey we undertook and the April survey we undertook we began to see the erosion of the relationship between host communities and these refugees. It will be speeding up if we leave it as it is unless we really intervene and act on it in a positive manner. So it is time now actually. Deadline is now.

DEVIN STEWART: Longer term, what is the political resolution for dealing with Rohingya? Do you see any agreement happening with Myanmar? Is relocating them back to Myanmar acceptable?

MUHAMMAD MUSA: I'm glad that you asked that question. The solution to this problem cannot be just this relief and refugee camps. The solution is getting the people back to Myanmar. The problem more is inside Myanmar. Therefore, the solution is inside Myanmar, too.

To do that, however, all of us believe as professionals that there has to be repatriation, but repatriation can't be forceful. It has to be voluntary, it has to be dignified, it has to be sustainable, and it has to be done in a way that will fulfill their basic human rights. To do that, conditions will have to be created within Myanmar.

It is not a bilateral issue. It is not something to be solved between Myanmar and Bangladesh. It is an international issue. It has to be worked out through the international community. What gives me optimism is that just a week or 10 days ago a UN Security Council delegation went there, saw the situation on the Bangladesh side. They went to the Myanmar side, saw the situation there, and I am waiting, that they will be debriefing us soon, in the next week or so. We are hoping that out of that some actions will be coming up which will be helping in creating a situation on the Myanmar side so that these people begin to go back.

DEVIN STEWART: What would you like to see from the UN Security Council? What type of actions would you like to see?

MUHAMMAD MUSA: Definitely one is I think there has to be, what Rohingyas want, they not only want to go with citizenship, which is an important issue, they also want to go and feel like they are secure. To ensure the security on their side there has to be some kind of international presence, and the presence could be UN presence. If the United Nations is present, they are there for humanitarian purposes; their presence itself in Rakhine State would be quite critical for these people to go back.

DEVIN STEWART: So a kind of peacekeeping mission?

MUHAMMAD MUSA: I am not able to prescribe what it could be, but even I think there is an even easier route, that even if a humanitarian group like United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR), who are offering services there, and World Food Programme (WFP), those who are offering humanitarian services, their presence to begin with, and of course, depending on the situation there could be some kind of peacekeepers. It may not be army, but some kind of mechanism that gives confidence to the people as they go back.

But also this transfer from Bangladesh to that place has to be voluntary but also respectfully done, and there is a procedural element in that, that there has to be a documentation issue raised, [inaudible], all this kind of thing, that needs to be supported also so that with further support this movement can happen, this transfer can happen with proper documentation mechanism which needs to be supported. Otherwise, it cannot happen. There also UN support would be quite critical, and some organizational support could be critical.

But overall, I believe that the readiness of the Myanmar side, the Myanmar government as well as army to accept that these people will be coming back, they will get their citizenship, they will get freedom of movement, they will have the ability to really engage in their livelihood, jobs which they are looking for, and most importantly lead a secure life, and not in camps, not in the internally displaced person (IDP) camp inside Myanmar, but eventually at their home level. That will be the most critical thing to ensure.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you get a sense that that's going to happen in Myanmar? Do you get a sense that Myanmar is receptive to that?

MUHAMMAD MUSA: In principle we are hearing that after the UN Security Council's visit, Aung San Suu Kyi mentioned that they are looking for a new relationship with the United Nations, and that is giving us hope. We don't know what that new relationship means, but we are taking it positively that that could mean working together with the United Nations to figure out a solution that would be acceptable both for Myanmar as well as the United Nations as well as for all of us. It has to be an equally acceptable and respectful thing; it cannot be imposed on Myanmar.

A good thing is that at least the Myanmar government is saying that they are looking for a new relationship, which I feel like is a positive move and a kind of light at the end of the tunnel, and we should be working on it. We should not let this momentum go. This momentum should be building.

If you ask me two things to be focused on, one is that the momentum that the UN Security Council created should be maintained and built on so that people can respectfully go back as soon as possible to their homes. Second is the impending humanitarian crisis that we see because of monsoon and because of the tensions being created in the local situation, and the resources are there to manage the situation immediately.

DEVIN STEWART: Muhammad Musa is executive director of BRAC in Bangladesh. Thank you so much for explaining the situation with the Rohingya, and we wish you the best of luck.

MUHAMMAD MUSA: Thank you for having me here. Again, our purpose of talking is not just talk. We want to see that we are in a world where there is no exploitation, no discrimination, everyone lives with dignity and with security, and we want to see that there is a peaceful, acceptable, dignified solution to this.

Therefore, we are ready at BRAC as well as the Bangladesh community, we are ready to work with the United Nations, we are ready to work with governments to be partners of theirs, and of course we ready to work with these Rohingya people and citizens of Myanmar and Bangladesh to address this issue together, and we are committed to that.

Thank you for interviewing me.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you.

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