Responses to Refugee Crises
Global refugee crises, whether caused by natural disasters or violent conflict, have become one of the most widespread and urgent humanitarian issues of our time. Displacement worldwide has surpassed anything witnessed since the wake of World War II, and UNHCR estimates that in 2022 as many as 30 million refugees have been forcibly displaced.
The Asia Center is focusing specifically on Rohingya refugees and the displacement issues they face. The Rohingya, a Muslim minority group from Myanmar, have been persecuted for decades and have never been granted citizenship status in their home country. In August 2017, widespread violent attacks on Rohingya villages led to a massive exodus of approximately one million refugees to neighboring countries, with the majority relocating to the sprawling refugee camps in the Cox’s Bazaar region of Bangladesh. In September 2018, the U.N. officially recognized the Rohingya crisis as genocide.
To date, the camps in Bangladesh have received approximately 900,000 displaced persons including children, resulting in severe overcrowding and limited access to food, shelter, healthcare, clean water, and basic sanitation. International aid groups struggle to provide ongoing services to address the refugees’ needs and living conditions, but the demand is overwhelming. In addition, issues have been magnified by deadly monsoon rains, landslides, and fires. UNHCR has reported an increased risk of diphtheria and cholera, and acute malnutrition in children above the critical threshold. The COVID-19 pandemic not only threatened the health of the refugees, but safety restrictions limited the number of healthcare and relief providers allowed to enter the camps.
The Asia Center is convening colleagues from across the different schools and programs at Harvard including the International Human Rights Clinic at the Harvard Law School, the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health to rethink the purpose, design, and politics involved in the camps and their host country, and to begin to understand and address a range of issues faced by the Rohingya refugees from their perspectives. Since the estimated average length of time spent in a refugee camp is seventeen years, the Center plans to look not only at the overall planning and layout of the facilities but also at the impact of displacement on the most vulnerable refugees, the children. The projects aim to look beyond basic survival and focus on children’s socio-emotional, developmental, and educational needs. Further, the research group will strive to identify strategies to counteract the traumatic effects on children and engage caregivers and community members in building resilience.
Both practical and academic lessons learned will be valuable for other refugee populations, and in the future, the Asia Center plans to look for collaborators to expand lessons learned to be applicable in other countries and regions.