The Rohingya crisis: key roles for business

Golda Benjamin & Bobbie Sta. Maria, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

3 October 2017

Half a million Rohingya refugees have fled Rakhine State in Myanmar in the last five weeks, leading to immense humanitarian challenges in the overflowing camps around Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. Over the same period, we have received information and queries from members of the business community on their perceived role in this crisis.

There have been a number of analyses on how the issue links to business, investments, and the economy.

A key report that came out a day before the 25 August insurgent attack that led to intensified security operations highlights an economic dimension to the decades-long Rakhine conflict. The final report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan included recommendations to prevent violence, maintain peace, and offer a sense of hope to the hard-pressed populations in Rakhine State. Part of it mentions the resentment created by investments that often exclude local communities from planning, execution, and benefits:

“Large-scale investment projects in Rakhine have also served to nurture local resentment towards the central government. Local communities are largely excluded from the planning and execution of such projects. Profit tends to be shared between Naypyitaw and foreign companies, and as a consequence, local communities often perceive the Government as exploitative. During its many consultations in Rakhine, the Commission met with numerous villagers, community leaders and civil society representatives who accused the Government of exploiting the state’s natural resources without giving the local communities their fair share.”

Campaign group Global Witness also refers to the military’s “outsized role in politics, the economy and the social life of the country”, highlighting how the military controls key sectors of the economy and mostly remains outside of civilian control.

As the humanitarian emergency arising from recent attacks worsens with few solutions in sight, some clear business or economic impacts are also emerging. For example, the European Parliament’s Trade Committee has said that the current situation does not allow for a fruitful discussion on a potential EU-Myanmar investment agreement, and that under current conditions, the ratification of an investment agreement with Myanmar is not possible. There have also been reports of companies deciding to hold off on their plans to enter the Myanmar market, citing the Rohingya crisis as an issue.

Leading responsible companies have taken the first step of using their public voice to address the issue.

Telenor expressed support for the recommendations of the Advisory Commission, called for open dialogue and sustained engagement, and highlighted equality and non-discrimination as core company values.

Leber Jeweler issued a call to action among businesses, saying: “In the face of the violence being directed against the Rohingya people, it is the moral responsibility of business leaders, especially those western companies now working in Burma, to use their voices and their economic influence.”

Unilever, through Twitter, stated that "it stands firm with Nobel Peace laureates calling for action from UN Sec Council to protect the Rohingya".

Companies could also support the humanitarian response.

In crises, there is always triage. Right now, the urgent need is humanitarian assistance, especially to the most vulnerable: unaccompanied children, pregnant women, the elderly, and the disabled.

Many organisations and governments are working hard to ensure that the emergency is addressed with urgency and efficiency. Equally, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi recognizes the efforts of the local community and said that there has been an "an incredible outpouring of local generosity". However, he added that all efforts must be "beefed up by massive international assistance, financial and material". The UNHCR lays out its needs in an appeal.

Business, with humanitarian agencies, will next need to be mindful of potential future trafficking and hyper-exploitation from the camps, especially if current calls for safe repatriation of refugees are ignored. Criminal traffickers will already have identified the refugees as a new, potential profit centre.

Leading responsible companies are already reflecting on their future role to help refugees, and contribute to resolving the conflict. These companies are looking at: supply chain approaches they can take to reduce marginalization and conflict, and their collective influence on government’s policy and practice. We highlight further their responsibility to ensure that their investments and supply chains in both Myanmar and Bangladesh prevent further marginalization and abuse of ethnic minorities, especially the Rohingya that have long been described as the world’s “most persecuted minority”.