Close to Home: The Role of Regional Partners in Advancing Medium-Term Solutions for Rohingya Refugees and Hosts in Bangladesh

July 10, 2018

The Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh continues to grip the region and—particularly with heightened risks during monsoon season—international headlines. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim recently visited Cox’s Bazar, where nearly one million Rohingya refugees are living. In addition to identifying immediate needs, the trip aimed to lay foundations for medium-term planning. As a significant step toward funding a longer-term response, the World Bank announced $480 million in grants, including a $50 million health project recently approved by its board. Last week, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) announced $100 million in grants, part of a $200 million commitment. These are important steps toward a comprehensive solution that recognizes the reality of protracted displacement—but additional commitments and coordinated policy dialogue are needed. And regional partners will be key to the ultimate success of these efforts.

A sustainable response to the crisis requires regional support

With colleagues at the IRC, we proposed a Solidarity Compact for Rohingya refugees and the people of Bangladesh. Building on lessons from previous refugee compacts, a Solidarity Compact would—under Bangladesh’s leadership—bring together multiyear commitments including new financing and “beyond-aid” commitments, (e.g., trade concessions and new labor mobility opportunities) from multiple bilateral and multilateral partners. A compact can harness investments toward improved service delivery and inclusive growth for refugees and host communities alike, and advance policies that provide greater refugee protection and rights.

Given the time it would take to forge an ambitious compact, we propose that Bangladesh and the international community consider starting with a one- to two-year “mini compact” that focuses on development financing, builds confidence, and spurs nearer-term progress. (While the compacts would not themselves focus on justice and accountability for crimes committed in Myanmar, a dedicated, complementary process is needed to address the alleged atrocities and create the conditions for sustainable solutions.)

Traditional donors such as Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union are critical to a compact or similar agreement, but any successful effort will also require robust engagement by partners in the region. In contrast to the Syrian refugee crisis, when a large number of asylum seekers reached EU shores, the imperative for the EU to apply its full diplomatic and economic weight may be weaker in the case of the Rohingya. For countries in the region, several of which already host tens of thousands of Rohingya, the potential effects of an insufficient response are more immediate and direct. Regional actors also better understand and are more invested in the complex economic and security dynamics at play. With regional partners in leading roles, a compact is not only more likely, but is more likely to make sense on the ground.

As part of our research on a Solidarity Compact, we are mapping what partners around the world could contribute and their potential motivations for doing so. One component of this is examining possible compact partners in South, Southeast, and East Asia. We highlight below some of our preliminary questions and hypotheses about the potential roles of regional partners.

China can’t be ignored. But will it come on board?

China has been engaged throughout the crisis, with Chinese leaders making several high-level visits to Bangladesh and pushing the repatriation talks along. How can the government of Bangladesh and compact partners harness China’s willingness to engage thus far, and how far, in turn, will China be willing to engage?

Involving China in any potential compact is essential. It is the most influential actor in Asia and increasingly rivals the humanitarian and development engagement of the traditional donors. It may be the only actor with strong enough interests and influence in both Bangladesh and Myanmar to shape the ultimate outcomes. Both countries, and the links between them, are critical to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a top priority of China's foreign policy. There are billions in past and planned BRI investments, including ports in Bangladesh and Myanmar, as well as a reported $5 billion investment in a special economic zone in the Chittagong region near Cox’s Bazar.

Yet, Chinese leadership on a collective agreement of the compact’s nature is unlikely. Aside from its prominent role in the Paris climate accord, China has not led the response to global challenges, keeping particular distance from those linked to human rights and civil strife. Nevertheless, there may be promising entry points to engage China on specific components of a compact, especially if it remains focused on development-led approaches, or make complementary commitments. For example, accelerating or making new BRI investments in and around affected areas in Bangladesh could be a win-win, getting BRI projects near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border back on track and creating new economic opportunities for refugees and hosts until safe, voluntary, and dignified return to Myanmar is possible. Relocating sunset industries—sectors such as garment production, where China is looking to phase out domestic production and move to less-expensive labor markets—may be another commitment with mutual benefits. China could also consider directing some of its climate financing pledges toward Cox’s Bazar, where deforestation has accelerated dramatically.

Who will lead from within the region?

With China’s interest in a compact likely limited to discrete or unilateral commitments, Japan emerges as a possible regional convener. Japan is invested in both Bangladesh and Myanmar, economically and strategically, in line with its foreign policy priorities of establishing itself more firmly in South and Southeast Asia and balancing China’s influence. Japan is the second-largest donor of overseas development assistance to Bangladesh—spending $517 million in 2015-16—second only to the World Bank’s International Development Association. However, leading at the global level on an issue with this degree of political sensitivity would be atypical for Japan. To the extent a compact focuses on medium-term, development-led approaches, these concerns may be alleviated, making it more feasible for Japan to play a leadership role.

Other countries may be interested and willing to lead on specific issues within a compact. For example, South Korea may be well placed to lead on business engagement and private sector contributions. South Korea has business investments in both countries—including factories in Bangladesh and talks of an industrial zone in Myanmar. Malaysia is a strong candidate to help ensure the interests of Rohingya are represented in the compact process, including by advocating for greater refugee rights and protection and for participation by refugees themselves. Newly reelected Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamed has been outspoken about the persecution of the Rohingya, and Malaysia hosts 72,000 registered Rohingya refugees. Given Mahatir’s previous robust diplomacy within and through ASEAN, Malaysia is well placed to push for progress on a regional approach. As part of its commitments to responsibility sharing, Malaysia could also take steps to improve the conditions of the Rohingya refugees it hosts and agree to host additional refugees.

India has started to speak out on the need to create conditions for safe, secure, and sustainable return. India has strong economic and long-standing political ties to Bangladesh, hosts Rohingya refugees and irregular Bangladeshi migrants, and is vying for naval access in Myanmar partly to counter China’s gains. It has also made clear its national security concerns about elements of the Rohingya population being radicalized. While some of these concerns are overestimated, they may be an entry point to engage India on evidence-based, sustainable responses. India’s economic interests and desire to balance Chinese influence may also draw India into compact discussions. Like China, India may be interested in engaging on discrete issues in a compact, which may be more productive than playing a leadership role publicly. India may be able and willing to serve as a champion through the regional organization BIMSTEC (see below), which Prime Minister Modi has promoted to deepen connections between South and Southeast Asia.

ASEAN’s critical role behind the scenes. A prominent role for BIMSTEC?

While the Rohingya crisis has been raised in the ASEAN context, it has not been officially discussed at length or generated meaningful contributions. Given ASEAN’s clear noninterference mandate and the political roots of the crisis, ASEAN as an organization will likely not take the lead on resolving it. But ASEAN is nonetheless a critical actor because it can bring together Southeast Asian countries in unique ways, and act as a bridge between member states and the international community. In this case, especially with a push from Mahatir, it could support crafting a compact that balances members’ interests and relationships with Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Thailand, the incoming ASEAN chair starting in 2019, also has an interest in a resolution to the crisis. Thailand hosts about 100,000 Rohingya refugees and wants to deter additional arrivals—an incentive to shape the conditions in Rakhine State and Bangladesh toward stability and opportunity. Myanmar and Thailand are both Buddhist-majority countries and they share a border, and Thailand is Myanmar’s second biggest trading partner after China. Having Thailand engaged in the compact, in addition to China, could help ensure that the compact feeds effectively into a broader regional solution that includes Myanmar.

As chair, Thailand will shy away from any actions perceived as political or interventionist. However, Thailand may be able to strike a balance in leading ASEAN toward a special summit or meeting that considers member state support to improving conditions for refugees and hosts in Bangladesh as well as in Myanmar’s Rakhine State with the goal of enabling safe, voluntary, and dignified return. The start of Thailand’s chairmanship coincides with Bangladeshi national elections, the results of which are expected by early 2019; greater space may open then for the Bangladesh government to discuss medium-term solutions.

Other regional bodies can also play an important role. BIMSTEC, a sub-regional economic and technical cooperation organization among countries along the Bay of Bengal (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand) is viewed as an effective forum for dialogue across South and Southeast Asia. BIMSTEC is currently led by a Bangladeshi diplomat, who could encourage a broader dialogue on sustainable solutions or start with a set of narrower sectoral discussions relevant to Cox’s Bazar, such as poverty alleviation, environment, agriculture, tourism, and fisheries.

The regional banks are positioned to team up with the World Bank

As reflected in the new grant agreements with the World Bank and ADB, the government of Bangladesh is considering how to address the medium-term impacts of the crisis, meeting Rohingya needs and ensuring Bangladeshi host communities benefit as well. It is promising to see commitments of development financing so early in the crisis (the one-year mark is August 25, 2018). But much more is needed to promote service delivery, inclusive growth, and opportunity for Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshis.

The ADB can play an important role in a compact, harnessing its technical expertise, financing, and relationships with countries and organizations in the region. ADB has invested more than $20 billion in Bangladesh. By teaming up with the World Bank, the ADB could help coordinate support to the Bangladesh government for the joint analysis, needs assessment, and monitoring necessary to ensure that financing achieves measurable outcomes and reaches both refugees and host communities. It can also help bring in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which to date has largely invested in projects that have been prepared by the ADB and the World Bank. This is an important way to engage China, which led the creation of the AIIB.

While a comprehensive diplomatic and development strategy is needed to build momentum for an ambitious compact, the time to begin outreach and due diligence is now. Bangladesh and its partners can begin private discussions to articulate the case for robust regional engagement and better understand how these partners may wish to participate. We hope our initial questions and hypotheses will feed into these iterative discussions, and look forward to publishing additional findings in the coming months.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

Image credit for social media/web: Photo by Russel Watkin, DFID