5 years ago

Influx of Rohingya refugees entails a serious burden on the economy

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Some 830,000 Rohingya Muslims, a religious and ethnic minority community in Myanmar, have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh due to brutal military crackdown in Rakhine state since August 25, 2017. The United Nations has called the Rohingya the world's most persecuted minority group and described the atrocities by Myanmar's authorities as "ethnic cleansing". Despite Myanmar's recent democratic transition, the persecution persists. The current humanitarian catastrophe apparently began with an assault on police posts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).The refugees are sheltered in makeshift camps in Cox's Bazar, where extensive pressure is on resources.

Bangladesh's economy will face multiple adverse impacts if the recently arrived Rohingya people are not repatriated soon. The detrimental effects are likely to include local food and transport price hikes, food grain shortages, and reduced tourism, along with increased pressure on natural resources and various adverse social issues. With the flow of international aid reducing the crisis will be acuter. If it is not resolved soon, a huge amount of money, food and natural resources will need to be spent to support the Rohingyas.

Bangladesh's future development hinges on some critical projects in Chittagong and the Hill Tracts areas, such as the Chittagong port, special economic zones and deep sea ports, offshore gas blocks which are very close to Myanmar. A possible conflict with Myanmar can hamper Bangladesh's efforts for integration with Southeast Asian countries. There is also a risk of a rise in military expenditure in Bangladesh, which can have implications on the development activities. 

The newly arrived Rohingya refugees have cost Bangladesh more than Tk 1.5 billion worth of forests, according to a report of the Ministry of Environment. Wood collected from protected forest reserves is the main source of cooking fuel for refugees. Burning firewood desperately by them in Ukhia, Teknaf and Naikhangchhari will destroy the ecosystem deeply. Even they are regularly picking up roots of trees which can cause mudslides. The government has allocated more than 3,000 acres of land belonging to the Department of Forests (DoF) for accommodating Rohingya refugees. There are gardens in some places in those huge areas. So, felling trees for housing the Rohingya people would definitely create an environmental impact. The local residents and environmentalists expressed deep concern over this desperate deforestation. Hills, water bodies and beach in Cox's Bazar also suffered environmental damage due to the Rohingya influx.

Undesirable incidents occurred between the refugees and host communities in the past. In future, with an increasing number of the refugees sheltered close to the local citizens' homes, more such incidents of hostilities cannot be ruled out.

Bangladesh has a history of home-grown extremist groups. Any militant activities in Refugee areas could trigger Bangladesh's as well as South Asian security tension in future.

Rohingya refugees spreading throughout Cox's Bazar will threaten tourism. If the crisis is not resolved soon, it will threaten and impact the tourism business as beaches, Himchari waterfall and marine drive, the most attractive tourist spots on the coast are very close to refugee settlements.

So far, 3,500 acres of forest land has been destroyed in setting up the makeshift camps. As part of the government's plans to relocate the Rohingya to the island of Bhasan Char in Noakhali, Bangladesh Navy has been allotted Tk 100 million (10 crore) to develop roads and a helipad there. Finance Division officials initially estimated the development of Bhasan Char would cost Tk 25 billion (2,500 crore),i.e., $300 million. Furthermore, another Tk 315 million (3.15 crore) has been allocated to erect fences in the makeshift camps in Cox's Bazar. According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), Bangladesh's per capita income stands at $1,602. The current estimate of expenditure on the refugees stands at $800 million to $1.0 billion a year, up to 70 per cent of Bangladesh's income per capita. If we use the World Bank's 'moderate' poverty line income of $3.1 per person per day, and if the number of Rohingya refugees is one million, it will mean the cost of maintaining them could be Tk 90 billion (9,000 crore), i.e., $1.0 billion annually.

Donor countries and agencies have borne the bulk of the expenses for now, but the future could be very grim if Bangladesh is compelled to bear the expenditure.  This may put the economy under pressure and affect the gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate.

Bangladesh has been patient, mature and opted for a robust diplomatic effort to resolve the Rohingya issue bilaterally and multilaterally. The government should continue to register these refugees (old and new) and provide them biometric identity card. All these people should be sheltered in officially-administered locations so that the government can keep track of them and exploitation of these helpless people by vested interests. Keeping the refugees in a controlled area, properly registering them, engaging the international community and raising the issue in international forums like the UN, ASEAN and Commonwealth for implementation of the recently signed agreement on the repatriation of the rohingya between Bangladesh and Myanmar are the need of the hour.

ATM Ridwanul Haque is Divisional Manager of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Programme at BRAC and an MDS student at BRAC University.

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