“I, Too, Was a Rohingya." Soros Steps Up in a Humanitarian Crisis. Will Other Funders Follow?

Photo:  Djohan Shahrin/shutterstock

Photo:  Djohan Shahrin/shutterstock

While the world mostly sits on its hands as Rohingya refugees suffer in one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, a few private funders are throwing them a lifeline, as we’ve reported.

That lifeline got significantly longer with George Soros and the Open Society Foundations’ announcement of an emergency assistance fund of $10 million earlier this month to help Rohingya people displaced from Myanmar and host communities in Bangladesh.

This support will be especially crucial from May until October, during monsoon season. The Rohingya refugees—who are sheltering in rickety settlements and already prey to water contamination and the spread of diseases—will face a high risk of flash floods, landslides, and cyclones.

The new funding includes an $8 million donation to BRAC, one of the biggest international development and humanitarian organizations based in Bangladesh. BRAC has a team of over 3,200 people assisting the Rohingya with sanitation and hygiene infrastructure, healthcare, education, protection, livelihood security, intensive behavioral change communication and counseling, and distribution of non-food items and shelter.

This support can play a crucial role in the coming period. But regional experts who spoke with Inside Philanthropy were clear that much more must be done by many actors, including funders, to defuse the crisis.

“Time is of the essence. International donors must continue to act fast to help Bangladesh to fill the funding gap to avoid potential catastrophe,” said Binaifer Nowrojee, regional director for Asia Pacific for Open Society Foundations, in an interview with Inside Philanthropy.  

Nowrojee said that beyond the additional funding, there was also a critical need for the Bangladesh government to designate more “flat land” for the relocation of 200,000 of the most at-risk refugees, and to expedite temporary passes for aid workers until after the monsoons.

The Open Society Foundations and Soros have a long track record of working in Myanmar. In fact, Soros himself previously visited with the nation’s Rohingya community in Rakhine State, who faced persecution well before last summer, when more than 650,000 Rohingya were driven from their homes and into Bangladesh by soldiers and mobs conducting a campaign of terror.

Soros, who lived through the Nazi occupation of Hungary, described his reaction to the plight of the people he met: "You see, in 1944, as a Jew in Budapest, I, too, was a Rohingya."

Related: A ‘Textbook Example of Ethnic Cleansing.’ Who's Helping the Rohingya of Myanmar?

Beyond the recent commitment by Soros, other funders offering support to the Rohingya include the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, the Ikea Foundation, and the Fund for Global Human Rights.

Those funders already on the case were heartened by the new move by the Open Society Foundations, one of the world’s largest philanthropies.

“I am glad to see this commitment as the Rohingya are facing terrible conditions in Bangladesh, which will only worsen as the monsoon season arrives,” said Jenna Capeci, deputy director at the Human Rights Funders Network, in an interview with Inside Philanthropy.

Capeci said that, in addition to addressing immediate needs, it was important for funders to have a “holistic approach and a long-term strategy—including leadership development—as it’s unlikely that Myanmar will create the conditions that would allow the refugees to return and rebuild their communities in Myanmar.”

The Rohingya exodus from Myanmar began last summer, yet it’s only now that Soros and the Open Society Foundations are stepping forward with a major donation. Still, this funding comes at a critical time. The thing about humanitarian crises is that human misery nearly always continues long after the initial round of news stories that spotlight the large-scale displacement of people. In all likelihood, the Rohingya will face hardship for years to come. They’ll need a lot of help, and it’s good to see a major foundation like OSF paying attention. Hopefully, this act of generosity by Soros and his team will spur other funders to dig deep on behalf of the Rohingya.