As hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas began to enter the Bangladeshi border in the wake of a brutal ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar military in August 2017, all eyes turned towards Rakhine.
The plight of the Rohingyas captured the world's imagination and humanitarian response poured in. The latest influx added to the half a million Rohingyas Bangladesh had been hosting for some three decades, but the country opened its door once again.
"If we can feed 160m, we can also feed 7,00,000 Rohingyas," Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said a few weeks later as the influx of refugees continued.
Now, after six years, the situation has changed, along with sentiments. There is an impasse; both sides facing some form of disgruntlement.
Repatriation remains a far cry, host communities feel hard done by and there are growing security risks.
On the ground, the pressing reality becomes clearer.
KAM Morshed, senior director of Brac Bangladesh, who leads the organisation's advocacy, partnership, social innovation lab, technology, and monitoring, evaluation, accountability and learning teams, thinks aid, or its lack thereof, is the most immediate concern.
Brac, the largest NGO of the world, was one of the first and the biggest responder to the crisis – accounting for some 12% of all the NGO activities, including education, accommodation, health, food, in the refugee camps in Cox's Bazar.
For Morshed, the crisis is no longer humanitarian. It has morphed into something bigger, necessitating the need for shifting strategies.
Adapting to a change
Over the years, as the crisis has protracted, responders had to shift and tweak approaches.
"Initially, there were a lot of things we did not know. The cultural and language barriers limited our works. We did not know their attitude towards healthcare, education, etc. We had to cope with it. While those barriers still exist to some extent, we now understand better.
"For instance, when the refugees first arrived, we focused on giving first aid, shelter, food, etc. But now, we think more long-term. We are planning for an integrated service delivery under what we call the Nexus Approach."
Describing the new approach, he said, "Currently we have health centres, educational centres and relief distribution points scattered across the camps in a gap of a few dozen houses. What we are planning is to establish a system that will allow us to provide the services from one place for an area. Think about something akin to upazila health complexes.
"Besides, we can use one establishment to deliver multiple services. An educational institution can also be used as a training centre when no classes are being taken."
This method is expected to reduce costs for relief work significantly. It is also timely as funds continue to decline with no tangible progress in repatriation of the refugees in sight.
"We have been calling to introduce the method for some time and the United Nations is finally starting to listen," says Morshed.
Speaking about the drop in fund allocation announced by several international agencies, including the UN World Food Programme, the Brac senior director said, "Especially, the agencies working with food aid are desperate."
However, the situation is slightly different for Brac as it handles a wide variety of activities. While the NGO is also facing fund shortages, its major operations, education, waste management, healthcare, are not expected to face much disruption.
"We are already in talks with our long-term partners with whom we work across the globe to ensure fund allocation for our works in the camps. Our education programme is secured till 2024, but the healthcare programme might face some problems."
Apart from the fund shortages, Morshed notes that relief works in the camps have decreased due to the Russian-Ukraine war.
"Many agencies have left the camps to serve in Ukraine since the war began."
Fewer jobs, rising crimes
Over the six years, there has been a massive uptick in crimes -- including arson, murder, kidnapping, rape, robbery, human trafficking and narcotics trade -- in and around the refugee camps in Cox's Bazar.
According to Morshed, there are several factors at work here, but the primary reason is economical, stemming from lack of work
"The refugees live in a small area where there's not much for them to do. They are not allowed to take up mainstream jobs. They are being forced to get involved in the shadow economy to survive, which results in crimes like theft, robbery, drug trade, etc."
The recent economic volatility across the globe, the cut in food ration and aid has added to their desperation.
"If you don't get food, or even the hope of it, you will resort to methods that are not acceptable, and the situation will continue to worsen."
Security still a concern
Since the crisis' early stage, one of the major challenges surrounding it has been security concerns.
Both local and foreign media outlets have heavily reported on the growing hostility between the host community and the refugees.
Although the host communities welcomed the refugees with open arms, the generosity began to erode over time.
The solution was supposed to be a stop gap for them, but a prolonged reception meant the welcome was being worn out.
Growing impatience led to growing demands for quick repatriation.
Thus, the chasm grew.
However, Morshed says a strong sense of disapproval for the refugees among the local residents is yet to arise.
"The situation is not that bad yet."
As the Rohingyas continue to take up small, informal works, the lower class of the host communities are finding it hard to cope.
"The Rohingyas work for cheaper wages. This is good for the locals who need day labourers for harvesting or similar works. But this also means that the locals who used to work as day labourers are losing their livelihoods," says Morshed.
Elaborating, he says, "I once met an elderly woman who used to collect and sell dry woods. She lives alone without any children or husband. But now, the Rohingyas are selling woods too and for cheaper prices. From her point of view, she has lost her livelihood and there aren't many options open for her to switch to different work. Of course, she will blame the refugees.
"But I still haven't felt any great sense of animosity from the host community yet. Those who have been protesting for the Rohingyas to be sent back represents a very small number. Though, I fear, if left untouched, it will boil down to an explosion point in the future."
Other factors, that are yet to manifest, should be taken into consideration to that end, the Brac operation chief notes.
"A large number of refugee children are growing up in the camps. These children have known only Bangladesh since their early age or even from birth. As they grow up, they will start thinking that they are Bangladeshi and are entitled to all the rights a Bangladeshi citizen enjoys… But Bangladesh does not have the capacity to reintegrate them."
He fears that if the crisis lingers further and the economic uncertainty continues, it will reach a tipping point.
Repatriation only in words?
After half a decade, the repatriation of the refugees seems to have become only bleaker.
"There are three ways to solve the refugee crisis: reintegration, repatriation, or relocation to a third country," says KAM Morshed.
However, as stated above, for Bangladesh, reintegration does not seem like a good option.
According to UNHCR's reintegration policy, if reintegrated, the refugees will have to be given citizenship and the state would have primary responsibility for their welfare.
"Bangladesh already has a dense population. Integrating one million Rohingyas will be a tough task, especially during this volatile economy," Morshed noted.
Secondly, relocation to a third country also doesn't seem viable.
"A few Rohingyas have already been relocated to the United States, Canada and other countries. Some countries have promised to take a few more of them. But that amount is very low. It won't make any significant headway to solve the crisis."
For Bangladesh and the Rohingyas, repatriation is the best possible solution. But exactly when can that happen, remains uncertain as of now.
However, few opportunities may appear in the future.
There are currently two cases in the ICJ against Myanmar over the Rohingya issue.
"We can expect that trials of these cases will eventually help the Rohigyas return home," says Morshed.
Morshed was also quick to highlight the progress made.
"It's not that progress has not happened at all. The cases in ICJ against Myanmar might lead to a halt in investment in future, which in turn can expedite the repatriation process," he hopes.