ODI “Dignity and the Displaced: Rohingya in Bangladesh” – Investigating Understandings of Dignity in a Humanitarian Displacement Crisis.

The Overseas Development Institute (ODI), recently published a working paper entitled Dignity and the Displaced: Rohingya in Bangladeshdocumenting their research findings regarding how different groups understand the concept of dignity, within the context of mass displacement of Rohingya. [1]

A rich concept, dignity must be central in a time of humanitarian crisis and when providing response efforts. Dignity is widely referred to amongst humanitarian actors due to its positive connotations, yet there is little understanding of the meaning of dignity to affected communities they work to assist. Without this understanding, and failing to define it themselves, humanitarian agencies cannot evaluate whether their operations successfully uphold the dignity of those affected by humanitarian crises. 

The aims of this study were to investigate what dignity means to both Rohingya living in refugee camps and to humanitarian aid workers, and if the affected population believes their dignity is upheld or undermined by humanitarian responses.   

“Ensuring the centrality of protection and preserving the humanity and dignity of affected people in all circumstances must drive our individual and collective action”
– UN Secretary-General, World Humanitarian Summit 2016.[2] 

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”.[3] Formed in 1948, the UDHR, together with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, form the International Bill of Human Rights, which set the foundation for international human rights law.[4] While not defining dignity itself, the UDHR entrenched the concept of human dignity as fundamental and non-negotiable, to be upheld at all times. This reinforces the need to understand what dignity means for different groups, in order that it can be appropriately and universally upheld.  

Since the 1970s, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have migrated on numerous occasions, as a result of ethnic cleansing operations. The most recent wave of migration to Bangladesh took place in August 2017, when the Myanmar military forcibly displaced 700,000 Rohingya. Currently, over 900,000 Rohingya reside in informal settlements in Bangladesh, considered stateless and without legal recognition as refugees by Bangladesh, nor as Myanmar citizens or even as Rohingya, by Myanmar.[5] Rohingya in Bangladesh lack the rights to work, education or to free movement.  

Since many Rohingya refugees have lived in Bangladesh for years, and a suitable resolution seems unlikely soon, the result is one of the most protracted refugee situations in the world. In this context, preserving dignity for the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya residing there is a challenging but essential task. 

Xchange’s Snapshot Survey and Rohingya Repatriation Survey  were both referenced in this ODI report. The report cited the 97.5% of Rohingya who would consider returning to Myanmar, and the 0.31% that would return unconditionally, serving to discuss Rohingya perceptions of dignified repatriation. Our Repatriation Survey revealed that “most respondents’ conditions for return included basic human rights and dignity”.[6] Xchange’s conclusion (quoted in the report) suggested a lack of knowledge about repatriation: “the low comprehension figures and overwhelming lack of clarity reported by respondents is extremely concerning, as repatriation should be voluntary in nature and decided with full knowledge of the process and consequences.[7]  

This ODI study involved 75 semi-structured interviews and 8 Focus-Group Discussions (FGDs) with Rohingya living in six different camps in Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh. Interviews were also conducted with 21 humanitarian aid workers from 17 different local, national, and international NGOs operating in the region. 

The study found differences within conceptualizations of dignity, between both Rohingya refugees and humanitarian aid workers:

Rohingya refugees consistently expressed dignity as having three dimensions: 

  1. Social identity – social and collective, community-wide dignity, “rooted in mutual respect”; [8]
  2. Religious – rooted in religious practice (e.g. purdah: “the covering of women’s bodies and gender segregation”), men’s religious freedom, women’s religious and social freedom; 
  3. Economic self-reliance – also combined with and enabling the first two dimensions of dignity.

Ijjotthe main word for “dignity” in the Rohingya language, is an indispensable concept for most Rohingya. It was described by one respondent as:

…a very huge thing in this world. If a person does not have dignity [ijjot], he has no reason to live.[9] 

Humanitarian aid workers considered dignity to concern meeting basic needs, communicating with communities, protecting vulnerable populations, and giving agency back to Rohingya. 

Therefore, Rohingya understandings of dignity are personal to their cultural context, for example emphasizing collective dignity, and upholding dignity within their religious practice. Amongst Rohingya, differences also existed regarding the importance given to the different aspects of dignity mentioned, for example some women regarded economic self-reliance as more important and would compromise purdah in order to earn an income for their family.  

Humanitarian aid workers on the other hand, tended to perceive dignity as less personal, and more general, practical humanitarian assistance efforts. The study found that sometimes this didn’t match Rohingya interpretations of dignity: for example, humanitarian actors considered women’s empowerment programs important for upholding dignity for Rohingya, yet many Rohingya emphasized the importance of purdah. 

Despite differences in understanding between those receiving and those administering the aid responses, there was enough overlap in understandings of dignity (e.g. respect and agency to practice their religion) which allowed Rohingya respondents to largely feel that humanitarian responses did prioritize and uphold their dignity.  

The research emphasized that dignity is a subjective concept, dependent on one’s situation (in this particular study, whether the individual was the ‘aid-giver’ or ‘aid-receiver’). It also highlighted that cultural sensitivity, inter-cultural communication, and awareness of and respect for the cultural norms of the affected community, are paramount for understanding how the affected community interprets dignity. The study concluded by recommending that consulting and involving the recipients of the humanitarian assistance at all times will greatly improve the likelihood of upholding dignity when delivering aid in displacement, and in other crisis responses. 

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[1] ODI 2018. Dignity and the displaced: Rohingya in Bangladesh.

[2] UN 2016. General Assembly: One humanity: shared responsibility Report of the Secretary-General for the World Humanitarian Summit. pg 13.

[3] UDHR 1948. Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Article 1. United Nations General Assembly.  pg 4.

[4] OHCHR 2018. “International Human Rights Law” https://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/InternationalLaw.aspx

[5] UNHCR 2018. “Refugee Response in Bangladesh”. https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/myanmar_refugees

[6] Xchange Foundation 2018. Rohingya Repatriation Survey

[7] Ibid.

[8] ODI 2018. Dignity and the Displaced: Rohingya in Bangladesh. Pg 7

[9] ODI 2018. Dignity and the Displaced: Rohingya in Bangladesh. Pg 1