Rohingya refugee crisis — how effective is UNICEF’s response?

Beginning in August 2017, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya men, women and children fleeing violence, the destruction of their homes and persecution in Myanmar, arrived on the beaches and paddy fields of Cox’s Bazar in southern Bangladesh. The scale and speed of the refugee influx was overwhelming and the magnitude reminiscent of the Rwandans in Tanzania and (then) Zaire in 1994, and the Kosovars in Albania and Macedonia in 1999. At an average of 20,000 refugees per day by September 2017, 700,000 Rohingya had fled to one small stretch of land and created the world’s largest and most densely populated refugee camp.

The increasing need for international humanitarian assistance prompted UNICEF to formally activate an emergency response in September 2017. It provided life-saving services reaching many Rohingya children and their families in Bangladesh and assumed responsibilities in nutrition, health, WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene), child protection and education. It also covered cross-cutting issues such as gender and inter-sectoral action.

An Evaluation of UNICEF’s response to the Rohingya crisis, reveals areas of great achievement as well as improvement

Since the start of the crisis, UNICEF has focused on three major obstacles to its humanitarian response efforts:

  1. the weak protection environment that is, the lack of space in appropriate fora;
  2. the extreme congestion in the camps; and
  3. the complicated inter-agency coordination model.


Aerial view of a large camp consisting of tarpaulin covered tin sheds and metal uts across hills and a large tree in the middle-ground.
© UN0235247/UNICEF/Bangladesh/2018/LeMoyneKutupalong Camp, Cox’s Bazar. Deforestation has left the refugee camps vulnerable to erosion and landslides.

The findings from the 2018 Evaluation of UNICEF’s Response to the Rohingya Crisis in Bangladesh, unveiled areas of great achievement as well as areas where improvements can be made.

Some of the impressive achievements were in areas such as scale, advocacy, leadership, and front-line service delivery. Additionally, UNICEF was able to pre-emptively prepare for the oncoming monsoon. In several ways, monsoon preparedness helped mobilize action and accelerate steps that contributed to an improved response overall. With over 100,000 children at risk from the dual dangers posed by the onslaught of the monsoon, like landslides and diseases, UNICEF and its partners provided tarpaulins, corrugated iron paneling and other pre-positioned supplies to reinforce key programme activities. The urgent need to prepare for the influx of floods prompted a rapid preventative response to help alleviate the challenges children already face in this humanitarian emergency.

Although UNICEF, the Government of Bangladesh and affiliated partners were able to meet the immediate needs of the Rohingya refugees, there is still much work to be done. The living conditions in the camps still do not meet the minimum living standards required from places with humanitarian assistance.This is primarily due to the speed and scale of the influx, which is unprecedented. From an average of 20,000 refugees per day in September 2017, up til now 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar onto one small stretch of land, creating the largest and most densely populated refugee camp.  Ensuring that refugees receive the help they need faster will also require coordinated effort from all sectors.

Children and young men walk and run on rain-soaked mud paths as it rains.
© UN0235256/UNICEF/Bangladesh/2018/LeMoyneKutupalong Camp, Cox’s Bazar during the monsoon rains. In several ways, monsoon preparedness helped mobilize action and accelerate steps that contributed to an improved response overall.

As one of the fastest growing humanitarian disasters in the world, the number of people affected by the Rohingya refugee crisis continues to increase while access to resources decreases. Despite the enormous upheavals posed by such a crisis, the evaluation team found that UNICEF rose to the challenge. As of December 2018, the organization along with the local government had provided more than 380,000 Rohingya refugees with access to safe drinking water. UNICEF has also provided more than 1.2 million people above the age of one with an oral cholera vaccine.

UNICEF is undoubtedly addressing their plight and will continue to do so under the guidance and recommendations of the organization’s leadership. Looking ahead, the evaluation’s nimbler and expedited approach allowed for more timely recommendations that are useful in bringing immediate solutions for such crises in the future.


Uyen Kim Huynh is an Innovations Specialist with the Innovation, Learning and Uptake unit of the Evaluation Office at UNICEF, New York.

Sanchi Ravishanker works with the Innovation, Learning and Uptake unit of the Evaluation Office at UNICEF, New York.

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